Laura Merkl graduated college with a degree in physical education and swam at a recreational level. After a couple of years working in the phys ed field, she switched to a career in accounting. The downside of this move was a sedentary day at a desk job so she joined the YMCA to swim with their masters program. She met Laurie Weiner there and they began participating in open water swims at places like Lake Berryessa. Soon, they left the pool behind and were swimming from the beach at Aquatic Park on a regular basis. When Laurie joined the Dolphin Club, Laura followed in December of 1984 very much looking forward to the opportunity to swim from Alcatraz. Although she swam through the winter, for the first couple of years of membership Laura remained unmindful of the Polar Bear mileage charts festooning the entry to the Dolphin Club. Then, in the 1986-1987 season, she decided to partake. Since she was living nearby the club and working downtown, she felt like the 40 miles required at the time for a marble block was insufficient and thought, "100 sounds good." Sure enough, slightly more than 120 miles later, Laura had earned her first Polar Bear.
|Stack of Polar Bear Blocks|
She and fellow member George Kebbe were closely matched in swimming speed and had developed a friendly and competitive relationship in the club-sponsored events. As it turned out, George also had his eye on the Polar Bear championship. In order to win the Polar Bear Laura had to swim more miles that winter than George and more winter miles than she ever had swum before. Club members avidly monitored the race in slow motion, regularly checking the mileage log in the foyer as she and George spurred each other along through the remaining weeks of the Polar Bear. Their colored squares leapfrogged one another in a simulacrum of a fiercely contested Olympic event. Laura had plenty of support. Women would regularly find her almost sleeping in the sauna and bring her strong coffee. Stan Hlynsky, president of the club the year before, would leave voicemails on her office phone with words of encouragement including advice to "eat more." And eat she did. She had recently started a new job and three bagels for a morning snack were common. Her gobsmacked co-workers were left marveling at where she put all this food on her lean frame. By March 21, 1994, her determination had produced 174 miles and the first woman's name to adorn the Polar Bear Champion plaque.
For the next six years, she posted 100 miles or more. Then came a five year stretch during which her South Bay commute resumed and she could only manage to chart mileage in the 80's and 90's. In the 2011-2012 season, the scourge of extreme athletes struck and she finished with a measly 68 miles and severe shoulder pain. Of course, she postponed the necessary rotator cuff surgery until after the Polar Bear was over.
As she recovered from surgery and pondered her goals for the coming year, her accounting instincts kicked in and she realized that she had accumulated more than 2,600 winter miles in the Bay. It occurred to her that people bike 3,000 miles across the U.S. They hike 3,000 miles across the U.S. No one can swim 3,000 miles across the U.S. But isn't 3,000 a good number for Polar Bear attainment? By March 21, 2017, she had racked up 3,035.75 miles. She now has over 3,200 miles in her wake and has not formulated another goal beyond, "keep it up." Guiness needs to know about this.