Look Tinkerbell, an ice hole!

A lesser-known legacy of Peter Pan's author: Christmas-day race in London's Serpentine Lake.

I blame my midwinter madness on JM Barrie for first sponsoring the Peter Pan Cup in the icy waters of Hyde Park's Serpentine Lake back in December of 1904 - the same year his play Peter Pan premiered at the Duke of York Theatre.

More than 100 years later, hearty souls still gather annually at the enchanting lake in the heart of London that inspired much of Barrie's Neverland story.

By 9 a.m., throngs of spectators are on hand to see a diverse batch of swimmers dive in for an icy 100-yard sprint. Much to my surprise, I - an American in London who hitherto shivered at the thought of getting into any body of water outside a hot Jacuzzi - have joined the Serpentine Swimming Club. Accompanied by the vague hope of winning Barrie's coveted prize cup, I will be taking the arctic Christmas morning plunge, along with 50-plus others.

Although I will be pitted against English Channel swimmers like Kevin "King of the Channel" Murphy, who has made 33 crossings; Rosemary George, who was the first European woman to swim the Channel in both directions; and 29-year-old Nick "The Fish" Adams who at 18 became the youngest person to swim the 21-mile crossing in both directions all in one go (He was in the water for more than 27 hours); I still have a shot. Like the club's weekly Saturday races, held year-round, the Christmas plunge is a handicapped event, meaning the slowest swimmers dive in first and the fastest last, so everyone has a chance to cross the line in first place.

Ice-laden waters are a regular winter feature of the Serpentine. And even during exceptionally severe winters when the lake freezes over, the weekly Saturday competition continues unabated in a different form. An ice hole is cut into which competitors plunge and remain for 10 seconds. Thus far, weather reports of near-freezing temperatures Christmas day indicate that we shall be swimming the 100-yard sprint in frigid water, skipping the ice hole.

Cold water has not put off 13-year-old Alice, a spectator at last year's Christmas race. "It was special and looked like a good challenge," she says. "So I decided on the spot that I had to do it." In June, she joined the club, reputed to be the oldest competitive swimming club in the world. As temperatures plummeted, Alice found the cold water "scary at first," but she soon got used to it. And, she says, "It must be good for you."

George Du Toit, one of a number of doctors who are club regulars, acknowledges: "There is a theory about benefits to the immune system, but I haven't yet seen scientific evidence to this effect."

Health benefits aside, all winter competitors appear to agree that cold-water swimming makes you "feel good." According to the club's Honourable Secretary Alan Titmuss: "When it comes to the competitive spirit of diving in, you no longer think about the cold - sheer bravado takes over."

These sentiments are widely echoed throughout the club's diverse membership, who range from preteen to octogenarian. Members of Parliament, filmmakers, and students, as well as a 70-year-old body builder, an office cleaner, and a 21-year-old puppeteer who was first introduced to the Serpentine inside her mother's womb.

Back in 1923, the club was touted as having "maintained an unusual interest in swimming among persons of all ages, classes, and all degrees of proficiency," according to the Boston-based publication The Swimmer. Apart from the inclusion of foreigners and females, since then little has changed. And like JM Barrie, I have discovered the enchantment of the Serpentine. Whether this will aid my 100-yard sprint on the 25th against young Alice, Nick "The Fish," and the rest, is to be determined.

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