Baby, it’s cold outside

People plunge at 16th annual Polar Bear Swim

OBSERVER Photo by Diane R. Chodan Above: Co-organizer of the Polar Bear Swim Judi Kelly and her grandson Jackson Golembiewski get ready to lead the swimmers into the cold water. Kelly has gone into the water all 16 times the event has run, and she said this was the coldest in memory. Because of the necessity to clear the area, the swimmers plunged in smaller groups and got out quickly.

SILVER CREEK — Everyone talked about the weather at Silver Creek’s 16th annual Polar Bear Swim for Charity on Sunday, but no one could do anything about it. More than 60 brave souls took the plunge into icy water during what was characterized as the coldest swim in memory.

Co-organizer of the event, Judi Kelly, and her grandson, Jackson Golembiewski, clad in polar bear costumes, led the swimmers into the water. Afterward Kelly said, “Yes, this is definitely the coldest, and I have gone in every year. It was a matter of the wind as well as the temperature. The creek area was also dredged this year, so the water is the deepest it has been.”

Members of the Silver Creek and Sunset Bay fire departments and rescue squads were present to ensure the safety of the swimmers. This year presented a particular challenge since it was not feasible to get to the open lake. Personnel worked to clear ice out of a small area. Swimmers went into this small cleared area of water in groups rather than all at once as has happened in previous years. Rescuers in cold water gear ringed the perimeter and kept a close watch.

County Legislator George Borrello (R-Hanover), who has participated 12 times, agreed with Kelly’s assessment of the cold. This year, he was joined by Legislator Dave Wilfong (R-Jamestown). The two dressed in light gray sweatshirts — Wilfong as Hans and Borrello as Franz of Saturday Night Live fame. While Wilfong had dark gray pants, Borrello wore polar bear patterned shorts.

Wilfong said, “It is our job to pump everyone up.”

The safety of the swimmers is always a concern at the Polar Bear Swim. The personnel from Silver Creek and Sunset Bay fire departments and rescue squads found clearing an area for the participants was particularly challenging because of the cold and wind.

Borrello greeted other longtime swimmers and volunteers. “This is a great charity event. We raised more than $500 from our fellow county legislators,” he said.

Legislator Lisa Vandstrom wore a Viking hat and was there to show her support, but declined to swim. “I have no padding; I’d die of hypothermia,” she said.

Craig and Monica Loeffler of Holland, New York participated for their eighth year. Both were aware of the challenging temperature. “I must be crazy,” Monica said.

Lester and Sonja (Bacho) Ormsby returned for their 11th time. Last year, the two were engaged at the event. “Maybe we’ll announce our divorce,” Lester joked, but it didn’t happen.

A team of swimmers from the Buffalo area dressed as hula dancers and a captain had a mixture of veterans and rookies. Rookie Joe Degrood was smiling afterward. He said he had a great time and would do it again.

OBSERVER Photo by Diane R. Chodan County Legislators Dave Wilfong and George Borrello portrayed the Saturday Night Live Hans and Franz characters. They saw it as their job to pump up enthusiasm.

Ronald (Ray) Rzepkowski, a Walmart employee who moved to Dunkirk from Columbia, S.C. in June, explained that this type of experience was on his bucket list. He was supported by his co-workers at Walmart, relatives in Dunkirk and friends from the south who have no experience with polar swims. He might be back next year.

His wife, Deb, said, “I was so impressed with how well organized the event was overall and especially in terms of safety.”

Kelly said, “I intend to do this as long as I can. I know it sounds bizarre, but it is exhilarating.”

Co-organizer Pam Forge said, “The community knows this is a great event. There are lots of great people who support it in many ways. This year we are donating to Women and Children’s Hospital, the Sunset Bay Fire Department, the Silver Creek Fire Department, the Silver Creek Rescue Squad and the Silver Creek Food Pantry.”

As of Sunday, Forge reported that swimmers alone raised more than $7,000. Again this year, Denise Wolnik of Dunkirk was the top fundraiser with $4,100. Her brother, Kirk Wolnik, also participated in the swim and received the award for best costume, a green and red Christmas suit with a mad bomber hat.

The total doesn’t include the proceeds of the raffles to which many local businesses and individuals contributed, food sold, fantasy black jack, or donations by the vendors on site, which included Merritt Winery and Monkey in Silver Creek. Rock ‘n Roll to the Rescue and PassionWorks provided entertainment.