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Running away from 2020 into cold Lake Lanier — annual Polar Bear Swim draws crowd
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Dozens of people ran into Lake Lanier for the 23rd annual Polar Bear Swim on Jan. 1, 2021, at Lake Lanier Olympic Park. - photo by Kelsey Podo

As cold rain poured over Lake Lanier Olympic Park beach, dozens of people excitedly dashed into the lake on New Year’s Day, leaving 2020 in the sand. 

“I’m done with 2020,” Victoria Parsons said before running into the water while wearing scrubs.

As a travel nurse based in Flowery Branch, Parsons said she felt like her work attire was fitting for the 23rd annual Polar Bear Swim, hosted by the Lake Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club. This year’s event featured swimmers running into the lake from the beach instead of having people gathering close to each other and waiting their turn to jump off a dock. The theme was “running away from 2020.” 

Parsons said this year marked her fourth time plunging into the water with her husband, Thomas, and brother, Jim Yates.

Keeping to their medical theme, Yates dressed in a lime-green spandex bodysuit, which he said represented COVID-19, and Parsons’ husband also wore scrubs.

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Victoria and Thomas Parsons, middle, run away from 2020 dressed in medical worker attire on Jan. 1, 2021, at the Polar Bear Swim at Lake Lanier Olympic Park. - photo by Kelsey Podo
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Jim Yates, far right, dashes out into Lake Lanier dressed in a lime-green bodysuit on Jan. 1, 2021, at the Polar Bear Swim at Lake Lanier Olympic Park. - photo by Kelsey Podo

Yates and the Parsons couple weren’t the only people dressed to impress. Donning a black tuxedo, bowtie and emperor penguin mask, Tom Diaz waddled up to the challenge for his fourth year in a row.

“It’s fun, and a little crazy,” Diaz said standing in the sand soaked from beak to toes. “People ask me, ‘Don’t you ruin it?’ I say, ‘No, it’s polyester.’”

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Tom Diaz waddles into Lake Lanier dressed as an emperor penguin for the 23rd annual Polar Bear Swim on Jan. 1, 2021, at Lake Lanier Olympic Park. - photo by Kelsey Podo

Although the outside temperature didn’t drop below the 50s, participants agreed that the combination of running into the lake and rain still offered a “polar” experience. 

“It was colder than expected,” Parsons said. “When you ran in, your legs were numb.”

Jim O’Dell, program director of the Lake Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club, said more people pre-registered for the event this year compared to the past two years combined. Counting walk-ins and those who signed up early, O’Dell said around 70 people came out for the Polar Bear Swim. 

“The excitement level is through the roof today,” he said. 

O’Dell said he considered making the 23rd annual Polar Bear Swim the last because participant numbers have declined each year. However, 2021 put a pleasant wrench in his plans.

“Based on the response from this year, I can say wholeheartedly we look forward to New Year’s Day 2022 already,” he said, smiling. 

The Polar Bear Swim serves as a fundraiser for the club, which operates canoe and kayak rentals, offers paddle lessons and trains Olympics hopefuls. 

“It helps support what we do, so we can help our community get outside to enjoy the lake,” O’Dell said. “This is an important part of what we do.”

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Piñatas filled with hand sanitizer overlook Lake Lanier for the 23rd annual Polar Bear Swim Jan. 1, 2021, at Lake Lanier Olympic Park. - photo by Kelsey Podo
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Bella Denton prepares to swing at a 2020 piñata filled with hand sanitizer during the 23rd annual Polar Bear Swim on Jan. 1, 2021, at Lake Lanier Olympic Park. - photo by Kelsey Podo
Polar Bear Swim awards

Best individual costume: Tom Diaz, penguin costume

Best group costume: Tom and Victoria Parsons, scrubs

Best entry: Matt Freeman

Best exit: Finley Sessions

Quickest entry: Tom Parsons

Quickest exit: Caleb Collins

Youngest female: Layla Zuniga, 6

Youngest male:  Simon Zuniga, 4 

Oldest female: Marion Schade, 78

Oldest male: Walter Schade, 79

Greatest distance traveled: Schades, Fort Lauderdale, Florida

Quickest swim lap time male: Linden Martin

Best splash: Adam Ashton

Funniest participant: Joe Dreher

Toe-dipper award: Chicken Lady

Best polar bear: Jim Brewer

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