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Polar Bears take annual plunge in frosty Mon

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Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2013, 11:18 a.m.
 

Hundreds of shivering, shouting swimmers leaped into the near-freezing Monongahela River on the first, snowy morning of the New Year, as part of the annual Polar Bear Plunge to benefit Project Bundle-Up.

An estimated 1,000 people gathered at the Mon Wharf riverwalk for the annual tradition, wearing sweats, swimsuits, costumes or the Polar Bear Club T-shirts sold to benefit the Salvation Army, which uses the funds to purchase winter clothes for disadvantaged children and senior citizens.

"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."

The National Weather Service in Moon measured the river's temperature at 35 degrees, and the air temperature at 30 degrees as a light snow falling on the riverwalk was turned muddy brown by the recently-dunked.

"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.

In bunches, people jumped from the riverwalk into the water at 9:30 a.m., splashed around briefly, and quickly climbed back out to dry off, shout and pose for pictures. Frank Nelson, the de facto "president" of the Polar Bear Club, said the tradition could go back as far as the early 1900s; he started participating nearly 50 years ago as a Mt. Washington teenager.

First-timer Jen Cottrell said she jumped in to symbolize a re-baptism of sorts.

"I'm committing myself to the Lord and ready to start anew," said Cottrell, 39, of Etna. "Do you remember that line in ‘Titanic' when someone said the water felt like a thousand knives stabbing you? It felt like that."

Emily Bell, the assistant for Project Bundle-Up and also a first-time swimmer, said last year's swim raised about $7,500 for the charity, which has partnered with the Polar Bear Plunge for seven years. This year, she anticipated it would raise even more through donations and T-shirt sales.

Police and paramedics were standing by, but no one reported any problems.

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