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OLCOTT – Organizers of the Polar Bear Swim for Sight are keeping an eye on thick, encroaching ice at Olcott Beach, as well as next Sunday’s weather forecast for the Olcott Lions Club’s premier event.

They’ll have help from Town of Newfane employees in chipping away that thick layer of ice on Lake Ontario’s rim to make way for waves of swimmers. And they’re hoping Mother Nature provides the sun, knowing that sun will bring out even more participants, and more participants translates into more dollars raised for area charities. Last year’s event brought in about $18,000.

“Even though we had an unusually mild winter last year, on the day of the Polar Bear Swim, it was the coldest day of the year,” recalled William J. Clark, who has run the event for the Lions for more than a decade. “Numbers were down a bit because we’ve found that people really like it sunny.”

Festivities kick off with tailgating from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and swim registration held from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. The Polar Bear Queen Contest is slated for 1:45 p.m., with check-in at the Lions Pavilion in Krull Park. At 1:50 p.m., swimmers under the age of 18 enter the water, followed by the official start of the Swim for Sight at 2 p.m., with access times scheduled in 15-minute intervals.

The organization has raised nearly $200,000 in 12 years by encouraging participants to collect pledges and donations, by offering a commemorative T-shirt to those paying the $20 entry fee, and by offering a hoodie to those donating at least $100.

That money helps a variety of charities, from Equi-Star Therapeutic Riding in Newfane to eye disease and diabetes research and treatment.

Lions Clubs International is the world’s largest service club organization, with more than a million members devoted to bettering their communities. The Olcott Lions, celebrating 50 years of service, started the Swim for Sight 44 years ago.

“It operates the same as a walkathon, where people collect pledges and often join a group of friends or get together with people from the workplace,” Clark said. “We’ve found this first Sunday in March works well, even though it can be very cold, because it’s the end of winter and people know spring is around the corner. They like to come out to see friends they haven’t seen over winter.”

The Lions Club also allows other community groups to set up booths offering food and drink.

“This adds to the flavor of the event and the community groups get to keep their proceeds,” Clark said.

The Olcott Lions Club has only 24 members and they rely on help from family and friends and other volunteers to pull off the annual event. Last year’s event drew 787 participants, Clark said.

“Some of these swimmers are the sons and daughters – and even grandchildren – of swimmers from the 1970s and ’80s,” he said. “I never swam in it myself, but I’ve probably been to every one of them since it began. It takes a special character to do it and about half of our swimmers have done this before. You should see them, smiling ear to ear, as if to say, ‘I did it.’ It’s fun.”

For more information and to print a registration form for the event, visit www.olcottlions.org or look for them on Facebook.

email: niagaranews@buffnews.com