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Hundreds brave freezing temps for annual Pittsburgh Polar Bear Plunge

| Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2014, 11:52 a.m.
Participants in the Polar Plunge for Special Olympics dash out of the Allegheny River on the North Shore Sunday, December 2, 2012. About 1,000 made the dip into the chilly river water. Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review

Bill Baierl couldn't even feel the cold at first.

That happened only after his whole body clenched, he said.

“I wish I hadn't jumped out so far,” said Baierl, 52, of McCandless, whose 30-second dip in the Monongahela River on Wednesday morning was about 20 seconds longer than he intended. “Everything in your body constricts at once.”

He joined about 750 other swimmers — including some tip-toers — in 38-degree water to brave the Pittsburgh Polar Bear Club's annual New Year's Day jump at the Mon Wharf, buoying turnout from an estimated 500 in 2013. Proceeds from T-shirt sales went to Project Bundle-Up, a Salvation Army campaign to clothe children and the elderly with warm outerwear.

While organizers said social media probably helped draw people out, blue-faced participants offered a range of reasons for their brisk beginning to 2014.

“It's fun, it's an experience, and it helps a great cause,” said Crystal Dering, 20, of Reserve, a third-timer who kept her shoes on for the dip.

Several feet away, Liam Coyne, 26, of Bon Air, said he was in it for “bragging rights.” He took the plunge “just to do it, just to talk about it,” he said.

Mark Neely, who estimated his time in the water at a couple of seconds, said he might try it again next year. He didn't sound convinced.

“It was one of those bucket-list things, just to say I've done it before,” said Neely, 38, of Coraopolis.

Wednesday marked the eighth year that Polar Bear swimmers supported Project Bundle-Up, which hoped to raise about $12,000 through the event. The project supports about 7,200 people in need across Western Pennsylvania, said Emily Bell, a coordinator for the effort.

New Year's Day river swims in Pittsburgh date at least to the late 1920s or early 1930s, said Frank Nelson, 65, of North Huntingdon. The president of the Polar Bear Club, he's been taking the plunge since 1966.

He spent about three minutes in the water on Wednesday.

“This was a short year,” Nelson said. “Usually, it's 20 or 30 minutes until my wife nags me.”

Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676.

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