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2009 Penguin Swim, Jeju, South Korea

21 January 2009 No Comment

Participants for the 2009 Penguin Swim wait at the start line
Participants for the 2009 Penguin Swim wait at the start line | Credit: Brian Miller

Islanders hit the beach despite unusually harsh winter weather
Story and photos by Brian Miller

It was a bitterly cold Saturday morning on what locals like to call “Korea’s Hawaii,” though the name seemed especially ill-chosen that day, as the temperatures hovered around freezing and the snow fell gently to the frozen sands of Jungmun beach. It was just the kind of morning that makes you wonder if Hawaiians ever have to drive with snow chains.

But a group of brave souls came to thumb their noses at Mother Nature and enjoy a day at the beach. They did some light aerobics in their bathing suits as Korean dance music blared over the loudspeakers. They came to take part in what has become an annual rite here on Jeju: The Jungmun Penguin Swim.

Billed as a way to beat the winter blues and reinvigorate the body, the swim usually takes place on the first Saturday of January. The 2009 swim occurred on Jan. 10, and featured an appearance by Jo Oh-ryeon (조오련), who gained fame as a swimmer with Korea’s National Team in the 70’s. He has also recently garnered attention for swimming around the islets of Dokdo 33 times to raise awareness of the country’s claim to sovereignty there. He riled up the swimmers by appearing in a Dokdo bathrobe whilst waving a large Korean flag, before the crowd joined with boisterous cheers and ran towards the sea.

Festival goers were also joined by Korean actor/model Marco, who stars in a Korean reality show called “We were married” (우리 결혼했어) with actress Son Dam Bi (손담비), who was also scheduled to attend but was forced to cancel.

But before participants took the plunge, they engaged in an amateur match of traditional wrestling, known as Sireum (씨름). Sireum is an ancient martial art and the national sport of Korea, in which opponents grab each other by the belts and wrestle until one opponent forces the other’s body above the knee to the ground. Members from the crowd challenged each other to spirited bouts in the sand and snow, while throngs of supporters cheered them on from atop sand dunes around the makeshift ring. The winner of the men’s bout won a night at the Suites Hotel in Jungmun, and the champion of the women’s chicken fighting competition won a golf bag.

The Penguin Swim was originally started as a way of drawing tourists to the island during the bitter cold of winter. This year swimmers braved air temperatures of 32F/0C and water temperatures of 39.2F/4C with wind speeds of 33 knots before dashing towards special tents to towel off and warm themselves by a fire. With the winter being much harsher than previous years, the swim drew a smaller crowd (estimated at 200 for 2009). Saek Dal (색달동마을회), a local village union, cooked up large vats of boiled pork with heaping bowls of kimchi and hot soup, while many participants took to makoli and soju to keep warm.

Local English teacher and festival participant Michael Butler may have summed it up best when he joked that “It was simultaneously the most painful and invigorating experience I have had since I came to Jeju.”

It was certainly a memorable time for many, and a fun way to beat the winter doldrums.

An amateur bout of Sireum, a traditional form of wrestling
An amateur bout of ‘Sireum’, a traditional form of wrestling | Credit: Brian Miller

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