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For the past three decades, Steve Larson has welcomed each new year by wading into icy waters with fellow martial artists. Tuesday marked the last time Larson will do the polar plunge as an owner of Longview’s Academy of Kung Fu.

Larson, 65, has sold the school to 21-year-old former student and current head instructor Eric Beattie.

But Larson says retirement won’t keep him from dipping in Lake Merwin near Ariel with other kung fu enthusiasts on Jan. 1 each year.

“I’ll do the plunge even if I have to have a walker,” he said with a laugh.

The plunge started in 1971 on the Kalama River as a way for martial arts students to challenge themselves and get out of their comfort zones, Larson said. After growing in popularity, the plunge eventually moved to Lake Merwin to have more room.

At noon on the sunny, but brisk, first day of 2019, about 80 people from seven martial arts schools across the region gathered to briefly join hands before marching into the still lake.

At 35 degrees, Tuesday’s plunge was milder than previous years, Larson said. One year, the sleet blew sideways at the swimmers and the windchill was below 0 degrees.

“We do tough things sometimes … and when we do difficult things together, it strengthens a bond,” he said.

Jason Ramsey, 31, drove up from Vancouver for his tenth polar plunge at Lake Merwin. He studies at Moy Martial Arts and Tai Chi Academy in Vancouver.

“They say you should let the cold drive your New Year’s resolution into you and let the cold water wash the old year off of you,” Ramsey said before the plunge. “And it’s fun to get with friends and do the same incredibly stupid thing.”

16-year-old Mikaela Jones, who also trains in Vancouver, said coming out of the cold water feels like an accomplishment each time.

“It starts the year off with the mindset that if you do a hard thing and come back, it shows you where you can go if you push yourself,” Jones said.

Those characteristics — confidence, self-discipline and respect — are important values that the Longview Academy of Kung Fu teaches students ranging from age 4 to 40, Eric Beattie said.

“(This event) is important because it shows our spirit: No one wants to do this, (but) the black belt is a long journey and there are things you don’t want to do but you have to,” he said.

Larson told the gather swimmers that the plunge “anchors” his life. He added afterwards that it is important to carry on traditions. He took over from former Castle Rock Police Chief Bob Heuer in the 1990s. And now Beattie will run the school.

“At a certain point, the mentor has to step back and let the new generation take over. And he’s doing an incredible job,” he said.

“Symbolic rebirth,” a nearby student suggested. Larson paused to consider the phrase.

“ ‘Symbolic rebirth’ — I like that.”

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