Starting '02 swimmingly (cold and nearly naked)

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Starting '02 swimmingly (cold and nearly naked)

If you saw a person clad in just a bathing suit outdoors in Korea in January, what would you think?

For that matter, what if it were snowing, and there were 800 people swimming in the cold water?

For most of the last 20 winters, hundreds of brave and blubbery people have done just that, gathering in front of Busan's Westin Chosun Beach hotel to take a dip in the bitingly cold sea. The ritual is part of the Polar Bear Swim, a worldwide challenge to swim in winter waters.

This winter the organizers of the event, including Trevor McDonald, the Westin's general manager, want to make the 15th Korean Polar Bear Swim the largest in Asia. The mission is to have 1,500 people brave the waters on Jan. 27.

"It's not actually fun," said Adrienna Zsakay, who survived her first swim last year and spearheads efforts to drum up more expatriate participants from Seoul. Some 50 expats swam last year.

"On the train to Busan last year, I thought, 'Why am I doing this?'" Ms. Zsakay said. "But when you're outside in those harsh winter conditions, and you look around, you feel like you're part of a huge family. It's like the Olympics, but without the competition."

Another member of the organizing staff, Choi Seong-il, said the Polar Bear Swim is a good way to clear your mind and start the New Year. In many places, like Ottawa and San Francisco, Polar Bear Swims are held on New Year's Day.

Mr. Choi has never taken the plunge; he says he needs to stay out of the water to manage the event and ensure safety precautions are in place. "We limit the swim time to 30 minutes because any longer in the cold water can be dangerous," he said. People with weak hearts, high blood pressure or other ailments that could be aggravated by cold water are discouraged from participating.

After some warm-up exercises, the 80-meter swim starts at 12:30 p.m., followed by a 20-meter run on the sand. After a shower and lunch, there is a celebration on the beach and, later, a party at the hotel.

There are prizes for the first few people who complete the swim, but the occasion is more about personal challenges. Some participants do not even swim, but just splash around in the water near the shore.

Though most of the polar bears are Korean, the swim was introduced in the early 1980s by two expats, Robert Fitzner and Ciaran Kelly, who worked at the Westin Chosun Beach hotel. The first swim had fewer than 20 participants; none was Korean.

The event, although skipping some years, has continued to grow. The organizers hope to draw participants from Polar Bear Clubs around the world for the "Visit Korea" events. This winter, two members of the Kirov, Russia, Polar Bear Club have expressed interest in joining the swim, as has the Gimpo Airport fire and rescue team.

Residents of Seoul interested in testing the gelid waters can join a tour package. A train car, decorated with polar bear motifs and reserved for the swimmers, will leave Seoul for Busan on Jan. 26.

For visitors from abroad, a six-day package that includes visits to other tourist sites in Seoul and Busan is available.

Asked about her recollections of her first swim, Ms. Zsakay said, "The only thing on your mind is to get warm."

Entry fee is 30,000 ($23) per person. For more information about the event and travel packages, call 018-229-2971 or 051-742-7411.

by Joe Yong-hee

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