OLCOTT – Standing out in the crowd of zany participants Sunday afternoon at the Olcott Lions Club’s Polar Bear Swim for Sight was never easy, yet one young man in misty blue chiffon stole the show.
“It’s my mom’s dress,” explained Connor Hoffman, 22, a marketing major at the University at Buffalo.
The shivering Hoffman wore a full-length gown with a plunging neckline. A matching feathered hat completed the ensemble, which was accented nicely by his reddened skin.
Friend Jake Weiss, 22, accompanied Hoffman into the water. Both work in the area as pizza deliverymen.
The temperature at the 2 p.m. swim time was 15 degrees with wind chills of 3 degrees, yet hundreds of swimmers and spectators crowded the Lake Ontario shore and lined the streets of Olcott.
The Swim for Sight helps raise approximately $18,000 each year to benefit a handful of charitable organizations, including EquiStar Therapeutic Riding Center in Newfane.
The event that started in a tavern in 1968 today attracts many fun-seekers who this year started the day at 10 a.m. with a tailgate party. This year marked the debut of a chili cook-off from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. as volunteer firefighters from throughout Niagara County served up samples of piping hot chili in souvenir mugs for $5.
To work up an appetite for the chili, the volunteer firefighters competed in a series of tug-of-war contests on Olcott Beach. The event, which had not taken place for several years, was brought back by popular demand, according to organizer William J. Clark.
Anthony Caraco of Olcott Fire Co. left the chili line to direct traffic on Lockport Road, where many spectators and swimmers had parked.
“Last year, it was a lot colder,” said Caraco, a 30-year volunteer firefighter. “It was a lot windier, and we ended up in a real bad snowstorm at the end of the swim.”
Firefighters, he said, also provided first aid for swimmers who were injured taking the polar plunge.
“We’ve taken people to the hospital before – cuts and bruises from jumping in – because of the ice on the water. They tell them to walk in, yet they run and jump in, so they get cut up.”
Two women walking roadside had driven from Rochester to see the swim.
“We have family who live here and they always said it was a real cool thing to do,” said Anne Pepe, 54, who was accompanied by Eileen Wolff, 54. “Taking the plunge is not on my bucket list, but it’s fun to watch and people really get into it.”
There was a sighting of Captain Morgan near the Lighthouse Grill, where many swimmers stopped by for a pre-dip shot of rum. In the parking area, meanwhile, four swimmers celebrated multiple dips.
“It’s my fifth year,” said Anthony Damico, 26, of Cheektowaga, whose trunks were frozen.
If the well-below-freezing temperatures were not enough to give Damico the chills, consider his metal septum ring that pierced his nose.
“The tip of my nose hurts from time to time,” he said. “It gets cold.”
What does it feel like to swim in 15-degree weather?
“Pins and needles times a billion,” said Damico, a tattoo artist, who raised $20 for the Swim for Sight.
His friends Amber Maciejewski, 26, of Cambria and Derek Garlewski, 34, of Cheektowaga joined him in the water.
Maciejewski compared the water this year to last year’s slushy conditions.
“This year, because it’s so cold outside, there’s barely a difference in the water,” she said. “Last year, it was so warm – like 35 degrees – the water was just freezing. It was hard to lift your legs from the water. It was like hitting a slushy.”
Garlewski, a disc jockey at Gold in Blasdell, this year raised $250.
The high temperature on Sunday occurred shortly after midnight, when a reading of 18 degrees was recorded, according to the National Weather Service.
Numbing temperatures will continue this week, said the National Weather Service, which issued a wind chill advisory for southern Erie, Wyoming, Chautauqua, Cattaraugus and Allegany counties today from 1 a.m. to 10 a.m.,
In the Buffalo metropolitan area, expect today’s high to be in the low teens with overnight temperatures below zero and wind chills of minus 10.
“That will leave us flirting with the record low temperatures for March 3 and March 4 of 3 degrees below zero,” said Bill Hibbert, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport.
“Please, somebody put on a different record,” said Hibbert.