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Polar plunge into Monongahela gets chilly reviews

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By Rachel Weaver
Monday, Jan. 2, 2012

The temperature of the Monongahela River on New Years Day morning measured a chilly 40 degrees. Frank Nelson, who was moments from plunging into the water, wished it was colder.

Nelson, president of the Pittsburgh Polar Bear Club, and an estimated 2,000 people arrived at the Mon Wharf on Sunday morning to participate in the organization's annual New Year's Day plunge into the river.

Standing in a sudden heavy rain before taking his 47th annual leap, Nelson, 63, of North Huntingdon, reflected on much colder jumps of the past.

"In 1971 or '72, it was minus 2 degrees with a wind chill of minus 28," he said.

The event originated simply "as a bunch of guys going into the river" but evolved over the years to become a fundraiser, first for Make-A-Wish and now for Project Bundle-Up and the Salvation Army.

Some people, like Ben Dorsch, 35, of Gibsonia just come for the fun.

"That shot of adrenaline keeps me healthy all year," said Dorsch, preparing for his third jump.

Friends Jeff Bronowicz, 46, Sandy Connelly, 42, both of Etna, and Johnny Sutton, 34, of Murrysville — all truck drivers — said they take the plunge to support Project Bundle-Up and "to do something crazy."

"It's bad," said Bronowicz. "It takes your breath away."

The crowd waiting to hit the water wore a mix of bathing suits, bathrobes, ponchos, parkas and even a few costumes. Scott Walton, 42, of Blairsville dressed as Superman.

"I want to have fun," he said, in explanation of his get-up. "I don't want to go through life saying, 'I should have done this.'"

Ten minutes before the official jump time of 9:30 a.m., the rain picked up, and a few overzealous jumpers leaped in a little early. But once the official countdown came, rows of people splashed in together, surfaced and hurried back to shore.

"That was the coldest I've ever felt in my life," said Amber Book, 35, of Lawrenceville of her first jump ever.

Jeremy Stillwagon, 31, of West Mifflin, said the two jumps he took were "awesome." But why the need to go in twice?

"Because I'm an idiot," he said with a laugh.

In Fayette County, an estimated 400 people quickly ran into and out of the Youghiogheny River in Connellsville for the annual Polar Bear event at Yough River Park.

But air temperatures in the low 50s and water temperatures around 40 degrees left some of the participants a bit disappointed.

"Actually, I wish it was a little colder," said Brian Walters, 45, of Connellsville, who was participating for the third year in a row.

Last year, organizers had to cut through ice on the river to make space for the plunge.

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Polar Bear Plunge

Polar Bear Plunge

The Pittsburgh Polar Bear Club take the annual plunge Sunday, January 1, 2012.

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