The Oddballs coldwater swimming group meets at 7 a.m. on Willows Beach and 8 a.m. on weekends. (Andy Bernhart Photo)

Cold water swimming a morning ritual for Willows Beach crew

Group turned heads when they slow-walked into the Polar Plunge

While wave after wave of Polar Plunge participants rushed into the chilly waters of Willows Beach on Sunday, one group sauntered in slowly.

It wasn’t meant to be a flex, but the crowd definitely noticed.

Known as the Oddballs, the cold water swimming group raised $1,500 for the Special Olympics B.C.

Make no mistake, Sunday served as the perfect stage to introduce one of Greater Victoria’s most unique and newest communities. They aren’t a secret group, but by nature, they keep a low profile. Swims are at 7 a.m. weekdays, 8 a.m. on weekends, and the longest any spend in the water is about 15 minutes.

Then they’re off to work, or to enjoy their weekend.

The temperature usually ranges between six and eight degrees Celsius, usually seven.

The group recommends a maximum dip of five minutes for newbies, while the core members do between 10 and 15 minutes. Andy Bernhart kicked it off in August and soon others joined.

“I had already done some cold water swimming but I made the commitment that I would do it each morning,” said Bernhart, who works in digital marketing.

The Oddballs coldwater swimming group meets at 7 a.m. on Willows Beach and 8 a.m. on weekends. (Andy Bernhart Photo)

Turns out, thanks to the Willows Beach sunrise, the morning ritual is photogenic. When Bernhart’s friends saw it on Instagram and Facebook they were inspired to experience the serenity, peace and colourful sky.

But it’s the therapeutic benefits that Bernhart and the group trumpet. Aside from two trips away, Bernhart hasn’t missed a day in the water since August.

Another member Kevin Stephens just celebrated 100 days in a row and Russ Campbell is a close second, closing in on 100 days this weekend.

There are about seven core members, but the group has had up to 80. They took their name from the fact some of them are also members of the Odd Fellows Victoria chapter.

“Coldwater swimming is something you work your way up to,” Bernhart said. “At Sunday’s event, a great event, we were almost uncomfortable, but hopefully people realize we’ve been working at this and we’re proud.”

READ MORE: Photos: 180 brave the cold for third-annual Polar Plunge at Willows Beach

For the newbies, it takes about four tries before your nervous system gets used to it.

“Obviously your brain is flooded with messages that your body is in danger,” Bernhart said.

“After three or four times your response does shift, it becomes easier.”

Of course, some are keen to test their mettle on the first try. The group warns newbies to max out at five minutes their first few times.

“You have to realize there are health concerns and anyone with any circulation issues or health issues should probably check in with a doctor,” Bernhart said.

At the same time, there is new research into the mental health and immune benefits from cold water therapy. Dutch influencer Wim Hoff has made himself internationally famous for preaching coldwater therapy.

Some Oddballs, like, Bernhart, follow a deep breathing regimen each day in the water.

“I know I consistently got a cold or two every winter, and I haven’t had it yet this year,” Bernhart said.

Group member Katie Browne Dorion said the daily ritual is “game-changing,” and has helped her kick the winter doldrums of depression for the first time.

READ ALSO: Resident mistakes screaming teens’ late-night plunge for an emergency

“This new routine has changed so much in me,” Browne Dorion said. “It’s been my happiest winter on record in terms of mood. I’ve avoided the depression that likes to visit in autumn and winters.”

Of course, the Oddballs aren’t the only cold water swimmers and Willows isn’t the only place they swim.

In his travels Bernhart has come across a family, and a solo man, who bathe daily in the Saanich Inlet. The Oddfellows use Willows because of its central locale, it’s sand beach, and the fact its east-facing and captures the sunrise.

“There’s something about seeing the sunrise that sets something off in your head,” Bernhart said.

“After the swim you feel great all day,” said group member Dean McLeod.

“It’s totally open to whoever wants to come, we have a nice little group,” said Bernhart.

“It’s the kind of thing that not a lot of grumpy, angry people do. It’s a happy group.”

reporter@oakbaynews.com


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