“Back for more abuse, I see?” quips a fellow Dolphin Club member. Ginning ear to ear he has a satisfied look of accomplishment. He’s positively glowing.
It’s a brisk January morning in San Francisco, and I’ve just completed a training session in a pool. Bundled up in a down jacket, my soaking wet hair tucked up under a woolen hat, I meander towards the club. Plumes of warm air release into the atmosphere as I breathe. “Yes, Sir!” I reply enthusiastically.
The Bay Area is experiencing an unseasonably cold weather pattern, and this morning the air temperature is a chilly 40 degrees. I walk up the steps to the club, and open the door.
Dated and certainly not fancy, it’s a historic 2-story swim club that also houses an impressive collection of early 20th century wooden rowboats on the ground floor.
As I walk through the entrance, on my right is a gigantic display of collective determination: the annual Polar Bear challenge is well under way.
The goal is to swim a total of 40 miles between the winter months (December 20 – March 20) when the water temperature is sub-55 degrees. Miles are meticulously recorded by swimmers using a distance indicator called “squares.” Each square represents ¼ mile. 4 squares = 1 mile. The wall displays this dizzying array of color-coded badges of honor. Each member diligently records the distance swum each day on this board as they color in each square. One of my friends, Pete Perez has knocked out well over 100 miles already, with 2 more months left in the challenge. I’m in utter awe.
Upstairs Joe and I stop to say hi to the club commodore, 85 year old Lou Marcelli.
It is here that our daily pantomime begins to play out. “LOU!!!!!!!” I yell. “Where have been, Twinkle Toes? “Hurry up and swim.” He replies. “Do you want to swim with me today, Lou?” “Nope – it’s my day off.” Expertly positioned next to the heater in an old cane rocking chair, Lou stares towards the window and the panorama of Aquatic Park. I stand next to him and gaze out at the water. Other members filter in and out. We chat about the direction of the water current, the water temperature, any relevant pinniped sightings as well as anything SF Giants or 49ers related. “How about those 49ers Lou?” It’s my favorite part of the day and fits perfectly with my well-known penchant for dawdling.
My swim buddy Silva strolls casually into the room and joins the conversation. “You’re right on time!” I say. An almost religious and routine 15 minutes late. So predictable it’s comical. We call it Silva Time.
Careful to stay on some sort of schedule, I stand up and say – “let’s go.” I make my way to the women’s locker room. I retrieve my toiletries and towel from my locker for my post-swim shower. I change into a swimsuit, grab my cap, goggles and earplugs and walk out of the locker room with my flip flops on. You’d think it was summer. Except its not…
As I wait for Silva and Joe to emerge from the men’s locker room, I watch bright pink bodies trudge up the staircase from the beach. Frozen, some are smiling. Others have a pained look on their faces as if they have just escaped a torture chamber.
“Welcome to the Dolphin Club” I declare holding the door open for them. “49.5 degrees at the flag!” declares one swimmer. Oh god.
Shamed into action by watching octogenarians emerge victoriously from the water, the three of us decide to rip the Band-Aid off. It’s time to swim. Walking outside down the stairs to the beach, my skin is already covered in goose bumps and the scars on my leg are purple. I kick off my flip-flops and follow Joe and Silva to the beach nested between 2 docks. The stall continues. Standing in our swimsuits on the cold sand, we watch with envy as other swimmers emerge at the completion of their ice bath. We stand and chat some more.
Everyone knows we stall. Every single day.
If you didn’t know either one of us, you would assume it was our first time. In fact we’re often asked that. I dip my toes in. Oh dear. It’s cold. I continue walking in the water up to my knees. Silva and I stand still and stop. Joe stands back on the beach patiently waiting for the silliness to end. More conversation ensues.
Next I move up to my waist. Fellow swimmers chuckle as they watch with disbelief as we prolong the inevitable, and instead march directly towards the water’s edge and dive in. No hesitation. No dawdling. Not even a word.
This is where things become less precise. Silva and I wait for the serendipitous opportunity to stop, bottom half numb and inquire with some emerging swimmer as to the water’s conditions. Joe, meanwhile, who wears flip-flops year round, is up to his ankles. At some point either propelled by my need to be in the office or encouraged by a sudden move of Silva, we make the plunge up to our necks. This signals to Joe that the swim may actually be commencing and he bounds up behind us.
I can’t mention details of our swim together. Most of the time it includes privileged attorney-client matters.
Pink and purple from the cold, we eventually walk our numb bodies up the staircase into the club to shower. We can’t help but laugh and giggle like mischievous school kids. Buzzing on the endorphins and sense of accomplishment for having succeeded in asking our bodies to do that which common sense says “hell no.”
And it is precisely this insanity check - this essence - that draws us back here tomorrow. Same time. Same place.