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Record crowd participates in Connellsville's Polar Bear Plunge

| Monday, Jan. 2, 2012

A flock of Canada geese swam comfortably south in the chilly Youghiogheny River and another flock followed overhead as a record crowd gathered onshore for Connellsville's eighth annual New Year's Day Polar Bear Plunge.

The air temperature registered a mild 49 degrees, with the water a biting but ice-free 37 degrees.

More than 400 intrepid souls -- ranging in age from Sophia Pleva, 3, of Connellsville, who went in with her dad Michael, to Dr. Norm Persio, 75, of Ligonier -- ran into the water after a countdown from 10 to 1 and emerged, dripping, as the 2012 class of polar bears.

This reporter, 47, and her husband, Bryan, 49, plunged for the first time. Daily Courier reporter Mark Hofmann participated for the second time.

The water wasn't as cold as expected. The fire on the bank gave a welcome warmth, as did hot chocolate served by 15 members of the Connellsville Area Education Association, who provided the beverage to hold and sip for a third consecutive year.

"This is our third year giving out hot chocolate," said kindergarten teacher Kathy Grenaldo. "Our community is very important to us in education. Our families help out, too."

Polar bears and their family and friends crowded the river bank before counting down from 10 and running into the river. Unlike last year, no ice floated on the river, but no one would have called the water warm.

Michael Vavick and his family came from Latrobe to celebrate his 40th birthday with a chilly plunge.

"We're trying to do something fun," Vavick said. "We brought our kids and one friend. We're trying to kick-start the year with a fresh start."

This wasn't his first time in cold water, and the Yough is a warm dip compared to his Navy plunge. "I did the Blue Nose in the Arctic Circle when I was in the Navy," he said. "You wear boxer shorts and jump in the Arctic Ocean and get sprayed with fire hoses. It's a rite of passage when you cross the Arctic Circle, but this was my wife's idea."

"It's been on my bucket list," Dawn Vavick said. "I've never been in a polar bear plunge. I've been in stunt planes going with death spirals, but this is the first plunge. We always like to do different things with our kids. We went to Buffalo, N.Y., for wings, and this is another fun way to be together."

The Vavicks brought their son Ben, daughter Addyson, and her friend, Sarah Seremet, who all ran into the river laughing and re-emerged laughing.

Noah Gribus, 8, of Mt. Pleasant also became a polar bear on Sunday.

"I just want to go in and have fun. I'm glad I'm here," he said before the plunge.

Afterward, he shook a little with the cold as a grin split his face. "It was really awesome. It was a shock, the water was like freezing, but it was fun, and I want to do it again."

A group of young women from Junior High West took the plunge and have promised to return in 2013. Both peer pressure and fun guided their choice.

"It was my third time," Taylor Schomer, 14, of Connellsville, said. "It was amazing and fun."

"This was my second year," Danielle Schomer, 13, of Connellsville, said. "My friend told me to do it, and my church was canceled today, so I decided to come again."

Ali Beal, 14, of Dunbar plunged for the first time. "My friends wanted to do it again. I decided, what the heck. It was amazing. Cold, but fun."

Katie Deore, 13, of Dunbar, also plunged for the first time. "It was a lot of fun. I wanted to start the new year off fresh."

"This was the warmest year ever," Shelly Mattis of South Connellsville said. "I enjoy this. This was my fifth year. It's invigorating. Each year, it gets bigger. It puts Connellsville on the map."

Johnathan Fox is a charter member of the Polar Bear Club. He gives his body an additional challenge by riding his bicycle the 40 minutes from Scottdale before the plunge and biking back again. "It's a wonderful way to start the year," he said. "The weather this morning was beautiful."

Fox's friend John Bandemer has also ridden to and from Scottdale each year to take the plunge.

Nancy Jacobyansky, whose husband Frank got together with a few friends eight years ago to found Connellsvlle's Polar Bear Plunge, was amazed at the 2012 turnout.

"It's a record," she said. "We had close to 220 new polar bears and 175 previous polar bears. As every year, we had a lot of locals, but also people from Pittsburgh, Gibsonia, West Virginia, Ohio and Oslo, Norway."

Fayette EMS provided two warming tents, which many participants used for changing rooms; New Haven Hose Volunteer Fire Company ensured safety in the water; and the Connellsville Police Department patrolled to keep everyone safe.

In addition to welcoming the new year with an invigorating dip in the Yough, the Polar Bear Club collects food for the needy. Polar bears and their supporters brought enough food to stuff two trucks that will be distributed through Connellsville's St. Vincent de Paul Society.

So many individuals signed up to plunge this year that the forms for T-shirts and group photos ran out. Call Jacobyansky at 724-628-6668 or become Facebook friends with Connellsville Polar Bear Club to order.

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