Divers welcome New Year by diving into the Tiber

Marco Fois jumps off Cavour BridgeIt’s a relatively recent tradition for a city like Rome, started just after the end of World War II. At midnight on New Year’s Eve, 1946, Belgian expat Rick De Sonay dived off the Cavour Bridge into the cold, muddy, sewage-ridden, rat- and dead body-infested Tiber to welcome the new year. He had been an Olympic champion and was looking for work as a movie stuntman.

What started as one man’s publicity stunt became a tradition, and De Sonay became known as “Mr. OK” from the thumb-and-forefinger in a circle gesture he made to reassure the crowd that he was in fine fettle after he surfaced.

That’s not a foregone conclusion. The Tiber isn’t frozen, usually, but it’s still frigid on New Year’s Day — average water temperature is 5°C, 40°F — and at 13 feet deep, it’s shallow for a dive off a 55-foot-tall bridge. The currents and whirlpools are forceful around the pylons of the bridge. Also, there are things going on down there. Things involving boats and many people on them. (You can see some of the traffic in the footage below.)

Mr. OK died in 1988 at age 89. That year lifeguard Maurizio Palmulli (the guy with the long white hair) did his first New Year’s dive off the Cavour Bridge into the Tiber, considering it a duty to De Sonay whom he had known as a boy. He took on Mr. OK’s famous gesture and eventually the nickname followed.

This year Palmulli did his 22nd dive — his threatened retirement a few years ago never panned out — and he told news crews to look for him on bridges over the Seine in Paris and the Thames in London next year. Other divers have also taken on the fond tradition. Bartender and professional diver Marco Fois did his 12th dive this year.

It’s a New Year’s Day tradition now. Instead of diving at midnight New Year’s Eve as Mr. OK did the first year, divers have for decades now used the traditional noontime cannon shot from the Janiculum hill as the starter pistol for their dives.

Have a prosperous New Year, all. :boogie: