Stripped-down skaters compete in San Francisco’s annual Polar Bear skate

‘When people here have an opportunity to do something fun and outrageous, you can count them in’

Skaters in bright blue swim trunks, fuchsia tutus and cargo pants — and little else — cavorted on the ice despite 51-degree temperatures at the annual Polar Bear Skate in San Francisco’s Union Square on New Year’s Day.

The competitors donned their scant apparel and pirouetted, twirled and whirled at the Safeway Holiday Ice Rink, vying for prizes based on theme, originality and overall appearance. The uniquely Bay Area competition, sponsored by Safeway, is a takeoff on Polar Bear plunges and encourages skaters to compete in beachwear.

One might think that this year’s unusually cold weather would deter even the most determined eccentric (or exhibitionist) from competing. But Bay Area residents displayed their courage, not to mention their bodies, without a trace of hesitation Saturday afternoon.

Joe Houston of San Francisco, the wearer of the aforementioned blue swim trunks, bested eight other contestants for first prize: Two tickets to the ice rink valid until Jan. 17, 2022, $100 Visa and Macy’s gift cards, and handmade vegan truffles from Petaluma-based Sjaak’s Organic Chocolates.

It wouldn’t be accurate to say Houston skated easily to victory, either literally or figuratively, given the low temperature. While some of the other competitors were bundled up, the San Francisco resident was wearing nothing more than the blue trunks and a sizable backpack.

Five randomly selected audience members judged the costumes on level of detail, audience appeal, presentation, originality and creativity. Second and third prizes included gift cards, Sjaak’s chocolates, and dinner at the storied John’s Grill in San Francisco.

“There’s a magic in San Francisco,” said Robert Keith, general manager for the ice rink. “When people here have an opportunity to do something fun and outrageous, you can count them in.” The Safeway Holiday Ice Rink has been a holiday fixture at Union Square for 14 years, and the Polar Bear Skate event began nine years ago, he said.

Apparently, Bay Area residents threw themselves full throttle into the event, upholding the revered San Francisco tradition and the mantra: “If you’ve got it, flaunt it.”

Keith noted, “It started out: Wear your favorite swimsuit attire and ring in the New Year. Then people started wearing homemade costumes.”

“We’ve seen costumes that had to have cost hundreds and hundreds of dollars. You never know what is going to happen — sometimes the bathing suits are very tiny,” he added.

Saturday’s contestants included a woman in a Batgirl cape, and attire ranging from sarongs to a pink bathrobe and a silver feather boa.

Despite COVID-19, record rainfall and the cold, folks have been showing up in droves at the ice rink ever since it opened for the season on Nov. 3, Keith said. Attendance has been comparable to pre-COVID years, he added, while noting that COVID safety protocols are followed at the rink, which only admits people who are vaccinated or have tested negative in the last 24 hours.

“We recommend you sign up to skate in advance at www.unionsquareicerink.com,” said Keith, though a limited number of same-day tickets are also available at the box office.

The rink is open seven days a week, with nine 60-minute sessions a day, starting at 10 a.m. and ending at 11 p.m., through Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 17.

In addition to Safeway, the rink’s holiday events have a multitude of local sponsors, including Kaiser Permanente, Macy’s and T-Mobile.

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