Jumping into the New Year: Meet the Decatur man who started the city’s Polar Bear Plunge

By Catherine Godbey | Living 50 Plus

Standing on the dock of the Riverwalk Marina and Boat Harbor as cars streamed past on the bridge 37 years ago, Wayne Holliday jumped into the bone-chilling waters of the Tennessee River — beginning a Decatur New Year’s Day tradition that now attracts dozens of people every year.

Holliday, now 83, performed his inaugural jump into the Tennessee River on New Year’s Day — signifying his initiation into the Polar Bear Club — on something of a whim to welcome in 1985.

“I was watching TV one night and there was a scene in Rome, Italy, of an old fellow on top of the railings of a bridge. He dove into the river and I thought, ‘That’s a great idea.’ I mean, it’s kind of dull around New Year’s unless you’re a football fan, so I decided to jump in the river,” Holliday said. “I couldn’t believe I was going to do it when I got to the dock. I did question what in the world I was doing.”

But with moral support from his wife and friends, who remained warm and dry on the boat dock, Holliday went through with his maiden New Year’s Day swim.

“It was a shock and still is no matter how many times you do it. It’s like taking a cold shower in the wintertime outside,” Holliday said.

For three years, Holliday continued the tradition as a solo swimmer until four others joined him in 1988.

“I knew some people at the post office and I told one of them about it. He roped in three others and they jumped with me. From there, it just continued to grow,” Holliday said.

Once others started attending the event, Holliday felt an obligation to participate in each annual jump.

“I thought, ‘I can’t stop now, not with everyone else coming out.’ Then it got to be such a community event that I just could not not do it,” Holliday said.

At its peak, the Polar Bear Plunge has attracted more than 100 people.

“I was surprised by the number of people who came out. It became a nice community event. I thoroughly enjoyed being part of it,” Holliday said.

To capitalize off of the event’s popularity, Holliday began making and selling commemorative T-shirts with the proceeds benefiting Meals on Wheels & More. Over the years, Holliday estimated the shirts raised several thousand dollars for the nonprofit organization. Meals on Wheels serves 269 homebound residents in Morgan County every week, said Cindy Anderson, director of community services for the Community Action Partnership of North Alabama.

“See, we did some intelligent stuff, like selling T-shirts, to go along with the stupid stuff we did, like jumping in the river,” Holliday said with a laugh.

To commemorate Holliday’s jumps, his wife, Shirley Holliday, had a quilt made featuring the T-shirts from the Polar Bear jumps.

The first day of 2022 will mark the 37th time the Polar Bear Plunge has taken place — organizers canceled the event in 2016 when heavy rains the week before New Year’s caused the water to become muddy and littered with trash.

Whether Holliday, the father of Decatur’s Polar Bear Plunge, will participate in the event for 2022 remains in question.

“My jumping days might be behind me. It’s daunting to think about doing it again, but you never know. I may feel obligated to do it, though” Holliday said.

Along with Holliday’s first Polar Bear Plunge, another jump stands out in his memory.

“When we got out on the dock, I looked around the edge of the water and there was ice formed in the shallower places. It was weird looking at the ice in the water and knowing that I was going to be jumping into that,” Holliday said.

The event, held at noon on New Year’s Day, attracts between 50 to 100 people every year.

Holliday, who participated in every jump between 1985 and 2019, offered the following advice for rookies performing their first Polar Bear Plunge.

“Hold your breath. You want to breathe quickly after hitting the water. You feel like you need to catch your breath, but don’t breathe when you are under water,” Holliday said. “Also, wear a bathing suit, dress warmly, don’t undress until the last minute and wear rubber shoes because the dock gets slippery.”

Held at the Decatur Marina and Boat Harbor until 2019, the event moved to Ingalls Harbor for safety reasons last year. The 2022 Polar Bear Plunge will take place at Ingalls Harbor on Jan. 1 at noon.