Pittsburgh 'polar bears' take the plunge

Matthew Santoni
| Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2013, 8:54 p.m.

When Frank Nelson was a teenager, he decided on a whim to join the half-dozen people he'd seen on television taking a New Year's Day swim in the Monongahela.

He walked from his parents' Mt. Washington home to the Mon Wharf, jumped into the frigid river, then walked back home to family who saw him on the evening news and lectured him on his apparent lapse of sanity.

Nearly 50 years later, hundreds of others joined Nelson on the first day of 2013 to plunge into the near-freezing Mon, as Nelson's persistence, media attention and the generosity of fellow “polar bears” have turned a few people's eccentric tradition into a major annual fundraiser for Project Bundle Up.

“When I started back in 1966, there were just six or eight people who were doing it,” said Nelson, 64, of North Huntingdon, who has become the de facto president of the Pittsburgh Polar Bears Club by virtue of his longevity. “In the 1980s, we had 18 to 20 regulars, and I would always invite people back to my mother's house in Mt. Washington afterward. ... In the '90s it grew bigger and bigger, and we couldn't go to my mom's anymore.”

In a mix of swimsuits, sweats, T-shirts and costumes, swimmers went in bunches into the frigid river, splashed around briefly, and scrambled out to dry off, shout about the cold and pose for pictures.

“We figured, let's get the dumbest thing we could do out of the way at the beginning of the year,” said Leonard Picone, 52, of Regent Square. “For five minutes it's horrible, but for the whole year you laugh about it.”

Comic shop owner Scott Walton, 43, of Blairsville made his third plunge after some hesitation. For the second year in a row, he dressed as Superman, eschewing his first year's Green Lantern costume with fake muscles.

“The Superman costume was better than Green Lantern, because it doesn't sink as much,” he said.

Nelson put out a collection jar for the Make-A-Wish Foundation starting in 1995, and seven years ago fellow swimmer John Buckwalter connected the event with the Salvation Army and Project Bundle Up, which purchases winter coats for disadvantaged children and senior citizens.

Last year, the event raised about $7,500 through donations and T-shirt sales; this year organizers were anticipating even more, said Project Bundle-Up Assistant Emily Bell, who made her first plunge this year.

The Club itself is very loose-knit, mainly consisting of Nelson, a few regulars who make the jump year after year, and anyone who makes the annual swim.

The National Weather Service in Moon measured the water temperature at 35 degrees, and the air temperature was about 30 degrees when the first wave of swimmers went in around 9:30 a.m.

Nelson said the last few years had been “balmy” by comparison, with temperatures in the mid-30s or 40s.

“The colder the weather is, the better it is, because the water feels warmer,” said Sean Hayes, 41, a chiropractor from South Park who has participated for the last 14 years.

Matthew Santoni is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5625 or msantoni@tribweb.com.

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