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A Winter’s Tale

Lately, I’ve been thinking about joining a Polar Bear Club—you know, those maniacs who load up on Bloody Marys, strip down to nothing at the North Avenue beach, and hop into the freezing lake for charity. Then I heard about Sean Cooper.


Left to right: Sean Cooper, Mivie, and Zoran Zivkovic


One snowy afternoon late last December, Cooper, an Andersonville resident, bundled up, said goodbye to his wife, and went for a run with their dog. It wasn’t ideal jogging weather: about 16 degrees and blustery. The lakefront was apocalyptically devoid of people, the lake a dark expanse coated with snow. But Cooper, 39, wanted to tire the dog out before a long drive.

Somewhere on the lakefront path between Lawrence and Foster avenues, Mivie, his English springer spaniel, spied a bird and ran after it. A moment later, she disappeared over the embankment and plummeted into Lake Michigan. That’s when I would’ve said goodbye and gone home for a hot cocoa. But Cooper, unlike The Closer, has a functioning spine. When he looked down the embankment—a slick, eight-foot vertical drop of corrugated metal—he knew they were in trouble. Mivie had broken through a thin layer of ice and was paddling furiously to stay afloat. Cooper screamed for help. They were alone.

This dog is going to die, Cooper thought.

He struggled to climb down, but she remained out of reach. When he tried to persuade her to paddle to the beach, 150 yards away, she looked at him as if to say, Are you kidding? Get your bony ass down here!

Minutes later, a man on a bicycle appeared. “It was so cold, I was about to go home,” recalls Zoran Zivkovic, a 45-year-old Edgewater resident. “Then I heard shouts.” He spotted Cooper near the lake, waving his arms frantically: “That’s when I thought, Uh-oh, looks like I might get wet here.”

After calling 911, the pair devised a desperate but dubious plan. Cooper would hold the edge of the wall, stretch his leg down, hook Mivie with his foot, and pass her up to Zivkovic. Somehow, it worked. Cooper was able to kick the dog up to his hand, but as he was handing her up to Zivkovic, who managed to grab her by the ear, Cooper lost his grip. The last thing he thought was: He can’t pull her up by the ear. She’s 40 pounds!

Then Cooper slipped into the lake.

Well, he thought. That’s not good. His body numbing in the 34-degree water, Cooper recalled from a kayaking safety course that he had about ten minutes before his muscles froze up and he drowned. He tried to push  along the embankment to the far-off beach, but it was taking too long. On land, Zivkovic, who had wrapped Mivie in his coat, watched the struggle below. “He was obviously weak and cold,” Zivkovic recalls. “If I thought he wasn’t going to make it, I would’ve gone in.”

Then Cooper noticed a ladder on the wall. But it was too raw to his ungloved hands; he slipped off and plunged back in the water. After another attempt at clawing his way to the beach, he knew he would never get there. His ten minutes were running out. The ladder was his only chance. His clothes had begun to freeze, making every move excruciating, but somehow, rung by rung, Cooper dragged his jellied body up the ladder.

Fifty feet away, he saw Zivkovic with Mivie. Moments later, emergency help arrived, and everyone, it was decided, was fine. And lucky. And cold. Cooper’s hat, gloves, and coat were gone; he’s not sure where they went. A fireman remarked that when a dog goes in the lake in winter and the owner goes after it, they’re usually able to rescue the dog. And the owner? Not so much.

If Zivkovic hadn’t come along, would Cooper have gone in? “I’m glad it never came to that point,” he says. “I love Mivie, and sitting there watching her freeze to death and go under would have been unbearable.” As for Zivkovic, the anonymous man who easily could have convinced himself he hadn’t heard screams, he disappeared into that December day and returned quietly to his life.

The Polar Bear Club? Not this reporter. It’s going to be a while before I go near a body of water larger than the one in my bathtub.

 

Photography: Katrina Wittkamp

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