(An earlier blog entry on the Dolphin Club‘s Polar Bear provides some background on the event and may be accessed here. Also, this post is subject to revision as outlined in the P.S. near the end of the post.)
Asked of mountain climber George Mallory in 1923: “Why do you want to climb Mount Everest?”
His answer: “Because it’s there.”
Over it’s 42 year history, the Dolphin Club’s Polar Bear (“PB”)has attracted a set of people with a range of swimming skills, ages, body types, etc. Some, perhaps many, of the participants demonstrate a need to climb their own metaphorical mountain, evidently “Because it’s there.” In a low-keyed way, in this blog, I’d like to give some visibility to PB participants whose exceptional performances are especially noteworthy by naming my personal Polar Bear Hall of Fame.
Bill Powning – In 1974, a founder of the Polar Bear.
A graduate of Yale, sharp dresser, and gentleman, Bill earned a Polar Bear in 23 straight winters, a record at the time, until he reached his late 70’s and “retired” from the challenges of the tradition he started. His son, a Dolphin Club Life Member, is carrying the family flag and is a multi-year Polar Bear.
George Kebbe – A native of Syria, this now legendary PB arrived in San Francisco in 1972 and soon took up swimming in Aquatic Park. At the age of 41, in the 1993-1994 PB season, Kebbe swam 255 PB miles, a record. Nine years later his record was topped by Suzie Dods (See below). So, the following season Kebbe took on the challenge and topped Suzie’s record by 100 miles to set the PB record at 356 miles, truly uncharted territory. His unique asymmetrical windmill-style stroke is known as “The Kebbe” and, during that record breaking PB, was often visible along the buoy line in Aquatic Park. (A down and back on the buoy line is the gold standard for mileage in Aquatic Park.) Lou Marcelli, the Club’s longtime Commodore who was not known for hyperbole, called Kebbe’s completion of the 356 PB miles “one of the greatest feats of all time.”
George K. is one of the few Dolphin Club members to have an Aquatic Park marker named after him – formerly known as the can off the starboard quarter of the Balclutha, it’s now the Kebbe.
For more on Kebbe and his PB, go to SFGate.com.
Ralph Wenzel – Born in East Germany, low-keyed and modest Wenzel owns and manages the renowned San Francisco bakery, Schubert’s. In the 2006-2007 PB season, Ralph swam every day but one to achieve his goal of 356 miles, to tie but not exceed George Kebbe’s record! According to famed San Francisco Chronicle reporter Carl Nolte in a laudatory SFGate.com article, on the last day of PB, “With a chance to break the record and set a new mark, he stood up and walked out of the water. It was clear he could have gone back in the bay, taken another lap around the Aquatic Park lagoon and torn up the record book.
“I don’t feel like going back in again,” he said. Asked why he didn’t break the record, he shrugged and walked away to take a sauna.
In times when records are made to be broken and winners are hailed as superheroes, Wenzel seems to be a throwback to some other age. “
Pete Perez – By day he was a programmer at the Walt Disney Museum. But in the 2012-2013 PB he could be found in Aquatic Park every day at 5:15 AM and again at 6:30 PM, striving toward his goal of tying the PB mileage record of 356 miles– tying, not breaking the record, out of respect for the cold-water pioneer, George Kebbe, and Ralph Wenzel, who also chose to tie. During Perez’s quest, he figured that if he too were to tie the record Kebbe set, a tradition would be forming and, according to SFGate.com, “if there is one thing the Dolphin Club honors, it is tradition.” Perez developed an insider’s knowledge of Aquatic Park’s tides, currents, and micro-currents and used them to his advantage, fully within the PB’s guidelines. Perez even coined a name for a 356 mile Polar Bear, “a George.”
Perez’s “George” came a year or two after he set the record for a new PB tradition begun a few years ago, the “First to Forty.” (Forty miles is the minimum for a standard PB, and Perez’s record of 48 or so hours stood for only a year or two.)
Suzie Dods –In the 2002-2003 Polar Bear, Suzie set the PB mileage record at 256 miles, topping PB Hall of Famer George Kebbe’s 1995 record by 1 mile. That makes her the only woman to hold the Polar Bear single season mileage record. Evidently her record put a challenge in front of and accepted by Kebbe – Dod’s record lasted just a year until the next season when Kebbe did what has become known as “a George,” 356 miles. In addition to her PB exploits, Suzie has completed many challenging open water swims, operates a teaching/coaching business, and each November offers a free “Learn to swim in SF Bay” class at the Dolphin Club.
Joe Illick – Professor of History Emeritus at San Francisco State University and all-around renaissance man, Joe Illick joined the Dolphin Club in 1995 when he was 60. Soon thereafter he was dominating the Polar Bear, achieving the most mileage of any participant for 5 or 6 seasons (to be researched further!).
A strong advocate of double-dipping (swim-sauna-swim), Joe’s swim speed may be slower than his undergraduate days on the swim team at Princeton, but he makes up for it with commitment and time in the water. An author of several books, an artist, poet, and Club leader, Joe also invented the Joe Illick Award – it goes to the PB participant who has the highest “Illick score.” Illick score = (Age of participant – 40) x (PB miles of participant -40). Besides Joe, only Pete Perez (in his record setting year) has won the Illick Award.
Laura Merkl –Laura is true Hall of Famer. She is believed to be the first woman to win Polar Bear, which she did in 1993-1994 with 174 miles. She won a second time in 1999-2000 when she tied for first with Scott Haskins at 150 miles. Other metrics easily convey Laura’s affinity with the PB: first, she’s completed 29 PB’s, putting her high, possibly 2nd only to Vince Huang, on the list of PB’s done; second, she’s probably swum more Polar Bear miles than anyone, with 2865.75 career miles to date (according to her records, which the author certainly doesn’t question, Laura being a career corporate financial executive!)*. Averaging almost 100/miles/season over 29 seasons, and future PBs in front of her, Laura’s career mileage mark will be very hard to top.
*official Club records are lacking, but Laura conveyed she welcomes an audit! 🙂
Vince Huang – Vince, a well informed student of water temperatures in SF Bay, has earned Hall of Fame status because of his multi-year participation and Club record of 37 straight PB’s. Plus, he’s still going strong and will certainly lengthen his streak of consecutive PBs. Whenever it ends, it will be a monument of consistency and persistence, a string of consecutive PB’s that will be very hard to surpass.
In summary, as the reader may perceive, the Polar Bear is quite a tradition, a 3-month event and challenge that can capture the mindshare of participants like none other. In a future post I’ll report on the 2014-2015 PB.
Finally, the most recent issue of the Dolphin Log contains two articles on the Polar Bear, more evidence of its importance! When the Log is posted online, I’ll provide links.
P.S. Dear Reader, while I’ve strived for accuracy of course, this post may contain factual errors and/or omissions. If/when such information comes to light, I’ll make appropriate corrections and/or additions in this post and, if they’re major changes, I’ll note them in a future post. So, if you see what appears to be an error or omission, please bring it to my attention, thank you.
Revised: May 14, 2015
Krist- This is a great list and very well written. I have long been working on a project to tally all the miles swum in Polar Bear history, and when I have that done it could be a good quantifiable complement to the lore you share. One thing you’ll see when my work is finally shared, is that Laura Merkl has swum the most Polar Bear miles over time. In summary, thank you for the motivation to get back to work!