The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

January 2, 2014

Cold start

Polar bears greet new year with icy plunge

By Sandy Scarmack
Herald Staff Writer

SHARON — While some of us made New Year’s resolutions to do everything from getting in better physical shape to spending more time with our loved ones, about 100 people took a far more shocking approach and jumped feet-first into the icy cold Shenango River, welcoming 2014 with a big splash.

Organizers of the event said Wednesday’s dip may have been a tad bit colder than in previous years, with the water temperature at 39 degrees, according to Matt Lenzi, who along with his wife Darlene and friend Todd Boyer had participants sign waivers acknowledging the risks. The air temperature was a brisk 22 degrees.

“I like to say it’s a great way to wash off last year and baptize yourself for the New Year. Sometimes I say it’s a heck of a cure for a hangover, too,” Lenzi said.

Snow was falling and teeth chattering as participants stripped down to bikinis and swim trunks, lining up to make a mad dash into the murky water behind Quaker Steak & Lube in Sharon.

“Remember,” Lenzi instructed the crowd, “if you don’t go all the way under, you’re not a true polar bear. If you don’t go all the way down, then you only just got wet,” he said.

The oldest participant was Clarence Harms, of New Wilmington, who will turn 80 in a few days. A college professor, Harms said the polar bear plunge was one of the items on his bucket list and he missed out on a similar opportunity when he lived in Alaska.

“I like the excitement of it,” he said. Harms dared his grandson, Chance, to go in with him. “I will. Then I’ll come out and make a snow angel. I’ll be fine,” he said.

Harms, an environmental scientist, has crossed a lot off his bucket list already, including scuba diving with sharks and crossing the African Serengeti in a hot air balloon. Left to do yet, he said, is to dive the Great Barrier Reef “before it or I am gone,” he said.

For Gino Lenzi, a son of Matt and Darlene, the frigid swim is a holiday tradition.

“I love it. At first, it takes your breath away. Then it’s a rush,” he said.

Sisters Suzanne and Kelsey Kepple, of Sharon, weren’t sure what to expect.

“I guess I’m an adrenaline junkie,” Suzanne said, “and I talked her into doing it with me.”

“This might be one and done for me,” said Dave Mogg, of Hubbard, who came with some friends. “I’m not big on making resolutions or doing that kind of stuff. But this is one thing I’d like to take off my bucket list,” he said.

Polar bear plunges have been going on nationwide since the 1920s. Typically a fundraising event for charities, with the biggest one held in Maryland, where “Plungapalooza” raised $2.2 million for Special Olympics with some 12,000 participants.

The Shenango Polar Bear Club was the idea of Boyer, who learned of the events in other places and convinced the Lenzis to join him for a dip in the Monongahela River in Pittsburgh a few years ago.

“And I thought, ‘We have a river here, we can do it at home,’ ” he said.

Though the event has raised money in the past, this year’s jump was just for fun, just to keep the tradition going, he said.