History Student (almost) Becomes Polar Bear

Website: Cronulla Polar Bears Major Project

My journey of learning the histories of a swim club and almost becoming an affiliate member nears it’s final chapters.

The Cronulla Polar Bears is a club rich with over 70 years of history. The stories and memories of the club are all shared and cherished between members both past and present. Oral histories have been a key component of the club’s incredible sense of camaraderie. With the honest and casual nature that oral histories provides, it’s dependence on memory proves as it’s greatest hindrance. Through my work with the club, I began to realize the beauty in talking to members about their experiences and then learning to respect and understand the culture of the club. The downside of course is investigating particular years proves challenging on some of the older members and reignites those memories. Nonetheless, the process of being welcomed into their homes and discussing some of their most cherished memories was incredibly heartwarming as merely a daughter of the cook. Through my work this them, I often caught myself claiming membership to the club by saying ‘our club’ or ‘our members’ which in itself is a testament to their hospitality. Te Bears were very keen to have their stories in the physical form, in addition to leaving the website in my hands and taking it in any direction I saw fit. More importantly, I understood and respected that some stories were better left to be appreciated between members not for publication purposes.

The website is focused on showcasing the camaraderie and rich history of the club for not only members and their family or friends, but also those looking to join the club. Ensuring there was a means of contact was important to me as I wanted people to finish navigating the website and want to become part of the family. That was my aim in relaying their history and stories, for people to see themselves joining the club and actively being able to.

Considering the countless successes of the club since foundation, there are still many men who describe their swimming as ‘floating like a brick’. Of course, in true character and humour of the club, these gentlemen still continue to swim every Sunday regardless of ability. By removing that sense of competition and introducing the handicap system, they put a greater onus on the mate-ship and character of the club, which proves the uniting force behind its success. Working with this group has been an honour, to not only learn their stories but also help them make their own history for years to come.

Through the website I created, I hope it will be a platform that is easily adaptable for any further work I will be doing with them. For example, in the next few months I’ll be writing summaries about life members and significant characters of the club. I can’t wait to continue my work with the club and help them create something they can be proud of; it’s been a pleasure helping them preserve their history.

Cronulla Polar Bears circa 1960, photo provided by the club.

Cronulla Polar Bears Winter Swimming Club

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Foundational members circa 1960

The Cronulla Polar Bears is an ocean swimming club operating between May and September every year since May of 1953.  With some still swimming with the club from its foundational years, ages range from 25 to 94. Their passion lies within the love for swimming and friendship with beer and barbecues as an added bonus. Over the years they have been part of various competitions around the country. With the largest being the Australian Winter Swimming National Championships that are typically held in respective states capital cities. Other competitions include local heats in the public ocean pool at South Cronulla Beach, that is typically the busiest time of the week – particularly with 10 degree weather.

With ‘The Bears’ endorsing small fundraisers for the clubs operational expenses like uniforms, food and pool maintenance; they also support a small local foundation Bears Of Hope which helps children with psychological and physical disabilities in the local region. Yes, the running theme of the Bears even stretches to their sponsorship from Bundaberg Rum (which also has a polar bear as its mascot).

Meeting 9am every Sunday in the John Suann room, their swimming typically commences within the hour then will wrap up about 3pm, but typically most will continue to stay and chat with close friends after lunch. in regards to their Internet ‘paw-print’, it spans from local newspaper articles to their most active being their public facebook page. The passion, humour and respect for community, is obvious through this page that is typically updated once a week informing members on events or just adding to club morale.

For what this club lacks in funding, members and sometimes sanity (I mean really who wants to go swimming in 8 degree water?!) they make up for in friendship, support and laughter. With the average age of members being over 50 years old, it can be a challenging time for men’s mental health. Through exercise, strong sense of community and humour, the club provides a healthy and supporting environment for it’s members physical and mental health. From the interactions I’ve had with some of the board members, I can already sense myself becoming part of the small community that encourages laughter and friendship – although they’ll have to work a little harder to get me in the ocean next winter.