In 1952, Cecelia Klinger moved to Los Angeles from Illinois, where she had grown up swimming in the icy waters of Lake Michigan.
At first she would drive from Hollywood to the beach looking for a good place to swim. After getting caught in big waves off Playa del Rey, it was suggested that she try the breakwater area at Venice Beach.
Soon Cecelia met other swimmers and they got together throughout the year. After a while, lifeguard Darrell Willey proposed that they start an informal club. In 1960 the club became official. Since then the New Year’s Day swim has become a yearly event.
Cecelia died in 2002 at the age of 94.
There must be truth in what is said about exercise keeping a person young at heart and in good health. Julian Myers will be 91 in February and although running is what he calls his best medicine, he enjoys seeing his friends and making new ones on January 1st.
“This whole idea was appealing to me to just prove to myself that I can do something,” he says.
Julian also believes that giving something back, preferably something of civic or social value, will increase a person’s longevity. He and his wife Patsy co-founded Amigo Day. The concept is simple — greet anyone, anywhere, your way, on the first Sunday of any month.
“We hope to make Amigo Day as well known as Mother’s Day,” he says. “I think it will take me about 30 more years.”
According to longtime organizer Mary McGurk, Dick Van Patten Sr. of the Van Patten acting family was one of the first members of the club. It has become a yearly family event. Dick Jr. started bringing his sons Jimmy, Vincent and Nels in the 1970s.
“We’ve been having really good luck all our lives,” says Jimmy. “Somewhere along the line we started saying that it must be the penguin swim starting the new year off with that ice-cold plunge bringing us luck. So, to stay lucky, we’ve been going every year.”
Jimmy does admit that it can be tough to get there.
“A lot of people say they’re going to meet us but they wind up never showing up because they go to parties the night before and are tired that morning,” he adds. “We always force ourselves to get out there — no matter what.”
Children are welcome, too. Vincent Van Patten’s sons, Duke, 15, and Vinnie, 12, have joined the older members of their family since they were toddlers.
The youngest to take a dip has been about six years old.
Terry Ballantine started out watching his brother Bob.
“After a couple of years I decided that I could do that,” he says. “People usually think that it’s too cold or that they won’t enjoy it, but once you start, you can’t stop.”
Terry’s wife Lorraine helps out at the sign-in table.
“I want to thank Mary McGurk for organizing it every year,” Terry adds.
Mary has been involved in the penguin swim since the late 1970s.
“Cecelia kept saying to swim in the winter, and I said it’s too cold,” she remembered. “I tried it, got hooked and started swimming three or four days a week early in the morning in the winter.”
Although the swim started out as casual, there have always been a semblance of rules. About 15 years ago when the SCAQ (Southern California Aquatics) Masters Swim Club got involved, two courses were devised — one for people who come for fun and another for those who want to compete. All participants received certificates.
A male and female who have the fastest times in the competition course are crowned prince and princess. The king and queen from the amateur course are chosen by Mary. The Los Angeles County lifeguard on duty will determine the length of each course, which is dependent on weather conditions.
While it is agreed that swimming is a healthy exercise, it is important to remember that all participants should be healthy to begin with. Swimming has inherent dangers and is strenuous, especially more so in winter. The temperature on past January firsts has ranged from 52 to 58 degrees.
There is no entry charge to participate.
“Cecelia and I always felt that it is criminal to charge anybody to swim at Venice Beach,” says Mary.
Commemorative T-shirts are sold to pay for permits and insurance. Snacks and hot drinks are provided, courtesy of the Sidewalk CafÈ.
To start your new year off the right way, join the Penguin Club swimmers at noon Thursday, January 1st, at the breakwater at the end of Windward Avenue in Venice. Sign-up starts at 11 a.m. on the beach.
Information, Mary McGurk, (310) 821-8136 or SCAQ, (310) 390-5700.