Because naming things and writing for a living aren't quite punishing enough, I also swim in San Francisco Bay, where the average water temperature year round is 54°F (12°C). My base of operations is the Dolphin Swimming and Boating Club, which celebrates its 130th anniversary this year and where, aside from the advent of electricity about a century ago (and--hallelujah--saunas some time after that) and the admission of women in 1977, little has changed since the days of celluloid collars and handlebar mustaches.
Between December 21 and March 21 every year, the club sponsors a friendly Polar Bear competition. The objective is to swim at least 40 miles in the bay; the prize (in addition to bragging rights) is a little white marble block. I've earned a stack of six of those blocks; my personal Polar Bear record was 52 miles, which I found supremely challenging. A few years ago, though, a gentleman named George Kebbe shattered the record by swimming 356 miles during Polar Bear season. That's about four miles a day, on days when the water was as cold as 48 degrees and the air about ten degrees colder. (Okay, it's not Coney Island, but it's cold.)
This year George's record was tied, which is news in itself. But the way in which it was tied was even more remarkable. Read Carl Nolte's article in the San Francisco Chronicle about 47-year-old Ralph Wenzel, who swam four hours every day to match the 356-mile mark, and who could have surpassed it but chose not to. Nolte writes:
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. "If you don't mind,'' he said, "I'm a bit cold.''
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.
He did not explain what he did, but others were willing to speak for him. "It took class and he has class,'' said Noelle Maylander, who was one of his swimming partners.
"He is a very modest man,'' said Rick David, who also swam with him. "He does not like to draw attention.''
Kudos to the Chronicle for choosing veteran reporter Nolte, a very classy writer, to write this account of a very classy athlete.
By the way, Ralph Wenzel scheduled his swimming regime around his day job. A native of Dresden, Germany--he immigrated to the U.S. in 1990--he co-owns Schubert's Bakery in San Francisco, which is almost as old as the Dolphin Club and which turns out some of the most gorgeous and delicious cakes and pastries I've ever eaten. Stop by when you're in the neighborhood.