Each year, jumpers brave the snow and ice of the seminary pond to join the Cold Knight Club. (Photo by Katie Rosendale)
Each year, jumpers brave the snow and ice of the seminary pond to join the Cold Knight Club.

Photo by Katie Rosendale

“A crazy, fun, only-in-college tradition”: Cold Knight Plunge turns 25

February 5, 2023

It’s February in Grand Rapids, Michigan –– a city that’s not known for balmy temperatures at any time of year. Piles of slush surround you and catching even the smallest glimpse of sun is cause for celebration. All you want to do is huddle inside with a nice warm drink.

But each year, in an event now known as the Cold Knight Plunge, a group of Calvin students jump into the frozen pond (also called the sem pond) by Calvin Theological Seminary. This year, the plunge turns 25.

“I think it’s just one of those fun traditions –– something to rally around,” said Dana Krol, associate director of alumni engagement. Calvin’s Alumni Association, previously known as Knights 4 Life, is responsible for planning the event.

All jumpers, Krol said, receive a white towel –– but only Calvin students who jump for all four years receive the elusive golden towel.

“I feel like it’s such a huge accomplishment because you’ve been working on it for four years,” said junior Misgana Dinberu, who works as the marketing and communication intern for the Alumni Association and helps organize the plunge.

Origins

Susan Buist, coordinator of alumni programs, told Chimes that the Cold Knight Plunge –– or, as it’s officially dubbed, the Cold Knight Club Sem Pond Jump –– originated in 1999 as a homecoming event. (At the time, homecoming took place in February, not in the fall.) The goal, Buist said, was to create a tradition, an event that would “become a common memory that [could] unite alumni and students from different decades at Calvin.”

Before the plunge, jumpers would recite a pledge –– one that is still in use today. “When the waters cover our entire body, and our feet are mired in muck, we will be given the grace to emerge from the depths as lifelong members of the Cold Knight Club,” one section reads. “Having attained our reward, we will serve our fellow humanity, knowing that we have gone where few dare to tread.”

At first, attendance was scant: in 2000, the second year of the plunge, Chimes reported that only 27 students jumped. The article also noted that no faculty members or administrators participated: the president, chaplain and vice president for student life had all been invited, but they “politely declined.”

The plunge’s fourth anniversary was in 2002, which marked the first time anyone could be eligible to receive a golden towel. A grand total of one student achieved the honor, according to Buist. In 2006, however, there were three golden towel recipients –– and participation continued to grow.

Full-fledged tradition

“As of 2019, we had about 3,600 different students (and a handful of alumni and Calvin staff) who had jumped [since 1999],” Buist told Chimes.

In 2022 alone, there were about 400 jumpers, according to Krol. And today, administrators are fully on board.

“Pastor Mary always leads the charge,” Krol said.

University Pastor Mary Hulst told Chimes in an email that 2023 would mark her 14th jump. “The [Cold Knight Plunge] is a crazy, fun, only-in-college tradition,” she said. “So much of college life can be stressful that it’s good to do something silly all together. Plus: huge bragging rights!”

Talking to veteran jumper Hulst about the plunge has been helpful for event organizer Dinberu, who will be jumping for the first time this year.

“I’m more excited than nervous,” Dinberu said. “If [Hulst] is alive and well, I feel like I’ll be fine.”

This photo was published in the Feb. 4, 2000 issue of Chimes. Only 27 students jumped that year. (Photo from Chimes Archives)

Both the anticipation of waiting in line and the jump itself are fun, said senior Gabby Freshly –– although the “immediate shock of the cold” upon exiting the pond is, in her words, “the bad part.”

This year, Freshly will jump for the fourth time and earn her golden towel. 

“I jumped the first year,” Freshly said. “And then I realized –– well, if I don’t get the golden towel at the end, then I’ll have just jumped in the sem pond for basically no reason.”

Freshly is excited to receive her towel. “As insignificant as a towel may be, I feel like it does represent something more,” she said. 

When Krol was a student at Calvin, she too earned her golden towel. And in her senior year, she even convinced a faculty member to join her. 

“I was in my business writing class, and I was talking to my professor. I told her, ‘After this, I have to go jump in the sem pond to get my golden towel,’” Krol said. “And she was like, ‘You know what? I’ve never done that, and I’m about to retire. I’ll come with you!’”

Pivoting

In order to survive for 25 years, a tradition must be adaptable, and the Cold Knight Plunge has evolved over the years.

For instance, students who are studying abroad can participate in a proxy Cold Knight Plunge, which still counts toward their golden towel. 

Krol, who studied abroad during her sophomore year, did just this for her second plunge. “I was studying in England, and a group of us ran into the North Sea,” she said.

The tradition learned to adapt again in 2021. Buist told Chimes that the Cold Knight Plunge turned into the Cold Knight Splash so as to respect COVID-19 restrictions.

“Almost 200 students participated by either jumping through the mouth of a shark onto a slip and slide, having cold buckets of water dumped on them or by being hosed off with cold water,” former President Michael Le Roy wrote in a newsletter at the time.

The slip and slide, Freshly said, was slightly less intense than a typical Cold Knight Plunge. “The way they had the slip and slide, you could pretty much avoid getting wet. I got a little damp,” she said. But “it was still very cold.” 

Jumping into a frozen pond can pose some health risks, although Krol can’t recall any major incidents. To ensure everyone’s safety, an EMT and police officers from East Grand Rapids are always on the scene, according to Krol.

Krol told Chimes that occasionally, the plunge has to be rescheduled altogether due to incredibly cold temperatures.

Such is the case this year. The 2023 Cold Knight Plunge was originally scheduled for last Friday, Feb. 3; now, it will take place on Friday, Feb. 10. 

“It’s a fun event, but we want to make sure that people are safe,” Krol said. 

Freshly, who had been monitoring weather forecasts, was relieved to hear of the postponement. “I was a little worried about losing a toe,” Freshly said.

This year, around 45 students will be earning their golden towels, according to Dinberu. And Krol estimated that over 200 students are currently signed up, with more expected to come. Registering online is preferred, but jumpers have the option to walk up to the event and register in person, too. 

“I would encourage people [to] just try it,” Krol said. “It is kind of a silly thing –– but when you do it, you become part of the strange tradition.”

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