OLCOTT — Rich Kozlowski has been participating in the Olcott Polar Bear Swim for Sight for 15 years and describes it as something that he and his friends 'just got into.'
After getting decked out in St. Patrick’s Day gear last year, he and his friend James Browne wore cowboy costumes Sunday as they dove into the freezing cold water off of Krull Park in Olcott.
The Polar Bear Swim has been organized by the Olcott Lions Club for close to 20 of its nearly 50 years as an event and Lions member Bill Clarke said it's now the main fundraiser that the club takes part in.
“I’ve been organizing the swim for over 20 years and I’ve never gone into the water myself. It takes a special character to get into it, and we got plenty of them,” Clarke said. “It grew in the '90s and the 2000s, we actually had our peak number of swimmers in 2007 when we had 1,000 swimmers.”
Clarke said that while there are fewer swimmers now, those who do come out have become better fundraisers. One of the Lions estimated the total amount of funds raised to be $40,000 on Sunday.
One of the participants, dressed in a polar bear suit but not for swimming, is Stephanie Kassay who was selling T-shirts and sweatshirts for Camp Abilities Brockport, a weeklong camp for kids with visual impairment that lets them play whatever sports they want and provides everything that they need to do that.
The event is officially called the Olcott Polar Bear Swim for Sight and the donations collected go to groups such as Guiding Eyes for the Blind, Lions Vision Beyond Sight Foundation, and Niagara Hospice. Many of the swimmers, whether they raised $100 or $400 said they were doing it to help those with visual impairment.
Terra Browne said that the event was now a “yearly ritual” for herself and her friends and family. She laughed and said that newcomers had to wade out to the line of firefighters in the water and give them a high five.
“We’ve been going on for so long now, we would have children of people that swam in the early years in the '60s or '70s, and then their children started coming in the '90s and so-forth,” Clarke said. “Well, now, we’re seeing grandchildren of some of the original swimmers. They say, ‘Oh, my grandfather did this. My father did it, so, I guess I will too.’ ”
One of the yearly swimmers, “JoJo” Olscamp, was celebrated by his friends and family with two busloads of swimmers and fundraisers to make the plunge that he so loved before his passing in October.
“The only reason we came this year was because of JoJo, he was family to everybody, we got everyone to come," Victor Ptasnick said. He turned around to show his shirt that said ‘Freezin’ for a Reason: JoJo Olscamp.’
During the six-hour event, people walked along the Main Street of Olcott, tailgated in the parking lots or watched the Niagara County firefighters square off with each other in a friendly game of tug-of-war.
“This is our fourth annual ‘Firefighter Tug-of-War’ where all the firefighters from the Niagara County area are invited down to participate in a fun day of brotherhood,” said organizer and firefighter, Kenna Liddell. “We do it for a little break in the winter and spend some time with our brothers.”
Another annual contest is the Queen of the Polar Bear Swim. This year it was awarded by Sharon Battaglia, district governor of 47 Lions Club in Western New York, to Renee Bryealski — who was dressed as a "Despicable Me" minion.
“I think it’s just participation and excitement," she said of participating. "We have a really large group of minions here. Every year we come out with a group of 40 people and have a big fundraiser for it. I know we’ve donated $1,200, if not more. This is my second year here and first time in the water,” Bryalski said referring to why she won the prize. “I guess the water is like 37 (degrees), so it won’t be bad (laughs).”
As the event commenced, people ran into the water, and for the most part, ran out just as quickly.
“Actually, it wasn’t that bad,” Jeff Geer said. “It was cold … but I feel pretty good now, being in the air.”
He said the cause he was proud of supporting was the fight against childhood diabetes, just one of many places the funds for this event supports.
More information on this annual event can be found at http://www.olcottlions.org.