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Chilly dipper earns his salt Down Under

By TERRY TOMALIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 24, 2000


BONDI BEACH, Australia -- Alex Blumenthil took a deep breath as he lifted his arms over his head, spun around in a circle, then bowed and exhaled.

"I'm warming up," explained the 75-year-old agricultural designer from Odessa, Russia. "The water is a little chilly. I need to get my heart pumping."

A Sunday-morning swim is a regular ritual for Blumenthil and the hundreds of other members of the Bondi Iceberg Club, who gather at this dilapidated saltwater pool overlooking one of Sydney's most scenic beaches to test their mettle against the chill of the Southern Ocean.

Membership in the club can't be bought. It must be earned in the 60-degree brine. "You have to complete 75 swims before you are admitted as a full-fledge member," explained Chuckie Kucharewicz, a local firefighter. "We only swim in the winter months, on Sunday mornings, and if you miss two weeks in a row, out you go."

The club was founded in 1929 by a group of men who wanted a place to swim in the winter safe from the rough surf and hungry sharks. The pool is perched above the beach rocks and frequently is the recipient of cold ocean waves. "Over the years we have had everybody from wharf laborers to members of Parliament, doctors, lawyers, firemen ... in the water, everybody is equal," said Ron Hutchinson, a transplanted New Zealander and longtime Iceberg member.

When the season opens in May, the water is still a little warm from the summer currents, too warm for the likes of most Iceberg members. So they dump about a ton of ice into the pool to cool things.

"We wait till the water chills down, then toss what's left of the ice over the sea wall into the ocean," explained Hutchinson, 75. "You can't be swimming with those blocks unless you want to be doing some head buttin'."

On opening day, swimmers line up in heats of eight and hit the water for a quick lap or two in the 50-meter pool. On a typical Sunday, the pool might see 30 or 40 heats before the Icebergs call it a day and head upstairs for a few schooners of Tooheys.

"The cold water must have some affect on the ol' gray matter," Hutchinson said. "You got to be stupid to come down here on a Sunday and jump in a cold pool, especially with a bit of a hangover after a rough Saturday night of drinking beer."

Hutchinson remembers one particular opening day, 15 years or so ago, when an "elderly gentlemen," in the heat in front of him hit the cold water and died instantly of a heart attack. "We pulled him out, laid him on the side of the pool and kept swimming," Hutchinson said. "Things like that happen from time to time."

Though the club started off exclusively for men, in 1994 the members began admitting women. On this Sunday, as thousands of Olympic fans crowded the beach below to watch the men's beach volleyball quarterfinals, members arrived for what will long be considered a historic swim.

"They are going to tear this building down and replace it with a fancy new club and restaurant," said Jeff Hart, the club's vice captain. "We will still swim, but this is the last anybody will see it like this."

Visitors are allowed at all times, so Hart invited this reporter to sample the soup that so many find addictive. So I stripped down to my surf trunks (no Aussie Speedo for this Yank) and hit the pool for a couple of laps.

Halfway through, a big wave hit the rocks below and sent a wall of cool, fresh seawater into the pool, giving my body a badly neededjump start.

I finished my swim and hopped out looking for a hot cup of coffee.

"No coffee mate, but I know where you can get a nice cold beer," offered one of my fellow swimmers.

Blumenthil, who spent more than half his life swimming in his native Russia, said the cold seawater is his secret to longevity.

"Did you enjoy the swim?" Blumenthil asked.

"You got it, mate," I replied.

"It will keep you young," Blumenthil said. "Saltwater is better than any mineral spring. Saltwater is good for the body. Saltwater is good for the soul."

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