Polar Bear plunge continues in Connellsville

| Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013, 12:52 a.m.

The cold weather and several inches of snow were not enough to deter many people from participating in the ninth annual New Year's Day Polar Bear plunge in Connellsville on Tuesday.

Barely dressed in swim trunks, bikinis and sandals, hundreds came down to Yough River Park to start off the new year in an unusual way.

Frank Jacobyansky, one of the organizers of the annual event, said there were more than 400 people who took the plunge last year and was sure there were at least that many again this year.

“This is one of the snowier ones we've had, but this is a big deal for people,” he said, guessing there could be approximately 500 participants this year.

“This is something that is a sense of community,” Jacobyansky said. “I'll see people here who I haven't seen all year.

“We have made good friends through this. I've met people here that I would never have known other­wise.”

Edwin Zylka and his daughter, Margaret Zylka House, have been jumping into the river for the past five or six years. His grandson, Max House, has even joined them for three or four years.

“I think it makes you feel more alive — like you've really accomplished something or done something that a lot of people wouldn't do,” Edwin Zylka said. “It's a mind over matter thing where you show yourself that you can control your own destiny and if things go bad at some point in your life, you are strong enough to make changes.”

Some jumpers were not nearly as philosophical.

Mariah Bentz, an 11th-grade student at Southmoreland High School, was there simply to get out of writing a five-page essay on an American scientist.

Her teacher, Mike Busato, offers his students the opportunity to bypass the essay if they take part in the annual event.

Busato said this is an opportunity for his students to get involved in the community, but added that “it is strictly voluntary.”

Bentz said she attends a camp on occasion that has a natural spring that stays about 30 degrees throughout the year.

“I went in there before, so I think I can do this,” she said, adding that her strategy was to get in and out fast without getting run over.

Busato said 12 of his students participated last year and at least two came back this year and brought their families, because they thought it was so much fun.

“No matter how cold it is out here, it's colder in there,” Busato said of the river. “The air feels surprisingly warm when you come out.”

The goal at that point is just to dry off and get some clothes on, some participants said.

Busato added that he's never once gotten sick after jumping in the river.

Youngster Max House said he doesn't actually get warm until he goes home, gets a hot bath and drinks some hot chocolate.

Jacobyansky said the bottom line of the whole event is “it's just fun.”

Rachel Basinger is a freelance writer.

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