Bitter cold shrinks Connellsville Polar Bear Club's annual plunge
For many, insanity might be defined as jumping into an icy Youghiogheny River in Connellsville at temperatures barely 10 degrees above zero dressed in a bathing suits and clothes more appropriate for a sunny summer day.
If it is not, then the wordsmiths at Webster's dictionary ought to rethink the definition.
"It's pure stupidity," said Nick Keller, 38, of Connellsville, moments after joining more than 100 other like-minded people in the Connellsville Polar Bear Club's annual plunge into the river. And Keller admitted he's spent his New Year's Day "doing it for years."
Allyson Delbaugh's mother could not figure out why her 24-year-old daughter would jump into a river 240 miles from their home in Shamokin, Northumberland County.
"You're nuts," is how Delbaugh recalls the reaction of her mother, who had to ask her four times what the heck she was going to do on New Year's Day.
Delbaugh said she did it because of her friend, Mike Parlak, 21, of Connellsville, who said he has taken the plunge since it started in 2005.
Those brave souls included 57 first-time polar bear club members and 59 veteran polar bear plungers, according to a sign-up sheet at the site.
It is likely that about 150 people took the plunge on Monday, according to Nancy Jacobyansky of Connellsville, whose husband, Frank, organized the first polar bear plunge in 2005.
"The last couple of years, we had over 500," said Nancy Jacobyansky.
The bitter cold temperatures and icy river probably were the reasons why the turnout at Yough River Park in Connellsville was lower than years past, Frank Jacobyansky said.
"It was so cold that I did not know if we were going to do it," Jacobyansky said.
Yet, the line to jump into the river was so long it took about 20 minutes for everyone to get their shot at the water.
Rather than have the swimmers make the plunge all at once, people lined up to take the plunge off a river ramp into a few feet of water. Frank Jacobyansky said they had to do it that way because of the ice that covered the area around the river banks. Some plungers put their whole body underwater, while others waded in knee- or-waist-deep and got out quickly. Many who went into the water hurried into a warming-tent to ward off the shivering they were encountering and then donned dry clothes.
Two of the youngest to make the dip were sisters Mersadie Marko, 7, and Piper Marko, 6, who were accompanied by their mother, Heidi Marko of Connellsville.
Although Heidi Marko has been making the plunge since it started, she said this was the first year her daughters followed their mother's path into the water.
"I kept watching the temperatures this morning and they both still wanted to do it," Heidi Marko said.
The toughest part was coming back out of the water "because the water was warmer than the air," Heidi Marko said.
To Randy Lindich, 62, of Sewickley Township, jumping into the river on New Year's Day the past five years has been "an adrenaline rush."
While some may debate just how beneficial a dip into icy water is, "it's the best you'll ever feel," Lindich said as he stood next to a roaring fire, a refuge many of the half-dressed plungers sought.
One longtime plunger, Pete Kasich, 66, of Elizabeth Township, went into the water and quickly got out. In years past, he said he would return to the river after the crowds had left the area to have a solo dip in the water.
As he warmed up around a fire, Kasich said he had been swimming in Connellsville's polar plunges since the beginning of the plunge. He started out years ago taking the plunge into a farm pond and "graduated" to the popular plunge off the Mon River Wharf in downtown Pittsburgh.
Kasich said his inspiration for his icy swims comes from the late Gus Brickner, the Charleroi steelworker who swam the width of the Monongahela River on Jan. 1, 1963, when the thermometer dipped to 18 degrees below zero and the river ice was said to be 10 inches thick. A towboat had to break a channel through the ice-clogged river to allow him to make the swim, according to reports of the swim.
The unofficial record of staying in the water for the longest time likely went to Matt Helinski, 43, of Scottdale. He timed himself at 1 minute 30 seconds and seemed in no hurry to leave.
"I should have stayed in longer," said Helinksi, who might have been the only person to sound disappointed he did not stay in the water any longer than he did.
So what's the point of floating in the water and not jumping out?
"It's cold therapy," Helinski insisted.
Joe Napsha is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-5252 or firstname.lastname@example.org.