OLCOTT – Nearly 600 hardy swimmers from across Western New York and even outside the region braved the chilly water and biting winds of Lake Ontario on Sunday for the Olcott Lions Club’s annual Polar Bear Swim for Sight to raise money for the visually impaired.
With hundreds more supporters, family and onlookers watching from the snow-covered beach and stone walls above, at least 573 men, women and children of all ages plunged through the slush on the shore and into the frigid, icy water of the lake at Olcott Beach. Some dipped only feet and legs in, while others soaked up the full treatment of water and snow up to their hair, laughing, cheering and screaming.
“It was cold,” said Jessie Van Wuyckhuyse, 24, of Hamlin. “My toes are numb right now.”
Dressed in everything from skimpy bathing suits or bikinis to sopping wet costumes of all sorts, they shrieked and hollered with excitement before they emerged, shivering in the 20-degree air temperature.
“You want to live life, and it feels great. It’s exhilarating, and it was amazing. I feel awesome,” said Brian Platter, 31, of Buffalo, a first-timer. “This is incredible. This is what Buffalo is.”
Jeff Salada of Pendleton said he came out because of “a lot of peer pressure.” The 21-year-old called the experience “shock and awe,” but said it was worth it and he would come out again.
The annual event, now in its 44th year, has attracted as many as 1,000 swimmers in some years and typically raises between $15,000 and $20,000 a year to benefit the Lions Club, said William J. Clark, chairman of the event, who has coordinated the swim for a decade.
Participants either pay $20 to enter the swim or raise additional money from family, friends, co-workers and others, earning prizes and rewards based on their fundraising.
“Cold. I knew it would be cold,” said 25-year-old Ashley Warren of Ransomville, who raised $561 as part of her plunge, her ninth. Was it worth it? “Oh, yeah!”
Indeed, while pure excitement and having fun drove some people into the water, the cause itself was important to many. Owen Cheverie, 33, of Lockport, has an 11-year-old daughter who is blind. He comes to swim every year and wore the same full-body clown costume he used five years ago.
He works outdoors, doing construction, so “I adapt to this weather.” Still, he wasn’t getting wet this year, because he leaves for Florida on Friday and said, “I don’t want to go there sick.”
Although the main dip itself was at 2 p.m., the crowd began gathering hours earlier for the festivities, as people huddled, bundled up in mostly cold-weather clothing and outlandish costumes for tailgating parties and mingling. Yellow school buses lined Ontario Street along the waterfront of the town.
“It’s fun. It’s so cold, but you feel so accomplished when you’re done,” said Kelly Shoemaker, 19, of Tonawanda, who was joined for her third annual polar bear swim by her 19-year-old cousin, Rebecca, of North Tonawanda. “You get so hyped up about it ... We’re just crazy.”
Green ruled the day in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, as leprechauns and other Irish characters milled around with Vikings, seals, bears, birds, clowns and a host of people in other get-ups. Lisa Kaczorowski, 43, a Town of Tonawanda resident, called her balloon-festooned outfit “ice wine.”
Dressed as a banana, 12-year-old Ethan Knott of Olcott conceded that “I’m just insane and I want to go in.”
Chris Smith, 34, of Niagara Falls, was decked out as a “yeti,” or the Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas.
At about 1:30, as the crowd grew along the stone walls and fences, and the first swimmers gathered on the snow-covered beach, five heavily garbed rescue personnel waded into the water, protected from the cold by their gear. With a safety rope stretched across the small stretch of water, they stood guard both to keep anyone from venturing too far and to quickly respond if anyone needed help.
“We’ve been doing it for eight years, and by now, it’s kind of a tradition,” said Stephanie Austin, 25, of Newfane, who stood shivering on the beach before the swim with her cousin, Stacey Austin of Burt, and two friends. But “I think we’re going to hang up our hat and throw in the towel after two more years.”
The Polar Bear Queen Contest took place on schedule at 1:45, followed five minutes later by swimmers under age 18 entering the water first. The masses followed at 2. “It was perfect, just too lumpy,” said Mike Seick, 41, of Niagara Falls, who’s been doing it for 20 years, and was decked out in purple, green and yellow as a Mardi Gras king.
“It was pretty cold, a little too chunky,” agreed Susie Geiger, 40, of Medina, who’s done it for 12 years. “The cold’s OK, but getting in through the chunks, it was a little slippery there. But once you’re numb, it’s OK.”
This year, the turnout was diminished by the cold weather and ice, but Clark said he still expects to raise $15,000. “It’s good for a day like this,” he said. “It’s very cold. The wind is biting. The ice on the lake is very thick. So for a day this cold, that’s a good number. ... But certainly, if the weather wasn’t quite so severe, we’d have more people.”
Clark said about half the participants are “repeat swimmers,” which helps ensure the numbers. “They are people that are committed to this process, to this cause. They come back year after year and have fun, which is strange to some of us,” he said. “But it’s a fun day. A lot of people see this as a tradition.”