Chili added to chilly for a poignant Polar Bear Swim next Sunday at Olcott Beach - The Buffalo News

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Chili added to chilly for a poignant Polar Bear Swim next Sunday at Olcott Beach

OLCOTT – After more than 20 years of helping to organize the Olcott Lions Club’s annual Polar Bear Swim for Sight, William J. Clark is happy to see a chili cook-off added to spice up next Sunday’s activities.

“We have some wonderful food at the event, but I always thought chili was missing, especially this time of year,” Clark said. “I think people will really go for it.”

Volunteer fire companies from across the county will offer steaming hot chili for swimmers and spectators to sample – and vote on – from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Clark said a $5 donation gets you a souvenir mug, spoon and generous samples.

The fire companies also will be kept busy at a revival of the firefighters’ tug of war starting at 10 a.m. on the beach.

“We held the tug of war regularly years ago and then the firefighters got older, I guess, and it wasn’t picked up anymore,” Clark said. “Now we’re bringing it back with a new crew of younger people. I’m excited. We have quite a few teams signed up.”

The death of the founder of the Swim for Sight, Michael Rann, in November, makes this year’s event especially poignant, Clark said.

“Mike was 87 and still active in our Lions Club right up to the end,” he said. “He started this at his tavern in 1968, which has since been torn down. He was very active in the community and spearheaded the fundraising for and building of the Lions Pavilion at Krull Park. Many community groups use that pavilion, from the Pirates Festival to the Celtic Festival.”

Kenna Liddell, Rann’s daughter, said her father’s death “is what makes it so special this year.”

Liddell is secretary of the Olcott Beach Community Association, which works closely with the Lions Club in helping to organize the event. She said there is a push to “make the event more family-friendly.”

She said local fire companies were very enthusiastic about the new chili contest and tug of war and about a dozen companies have signed on to participate in either one or both.

“I am so excited about this,” she said. “I’ve been getting calls and emails from companies saying ‘We’ve got the best chili’ and ‘We’re going to beat so-and-so.’ ”

The Swim for Sight helps bring in about $18,000 a year to aid a number of charities, from Equi Star Therapeutic Riding Center in Newfane to eye disease and diabetes research and treatment. Participants collect pledges for the cause, like a “walk-a-thon,” Clark noted.

Tailgating parties start at 10 a.m., followed by swim registration from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. The Polar Bear Queen Contest check-in is held at 1:45 p.m. at the Lions Pavilion.

Swimmers younger than 18 will be the first to test the chilly waters of Lake Ontario at 1:50 p.m. and the rest of the participants enter the water in 15-minute intervals beginning at 2 p.m. Those who have collected pledges of at least $100 receive preferred first access.

The sponsor list and contribution sheet may be downloaded by visiting All swimmers register on site at the event, but many find it easier to have their registration sheet and sponsor list/contribution sheet ready ahead of time. Minimum contribution is $20 and donations are turned in at the event, as well, unless they have been done ahead of time through the website.

Lions Club International is the world’s largest service club, with more than a million members devoted to bettering their communities.

The Olcott Lions, who celebrated 50 years of service last year, started the Swim for Sight 45 years ago when, as the story goes, several gathered at Rann’s Black Stallion Tavern in Olcott on a cold February day and challenged each other that they couldn’t stand the frigid waters of Lake Ontario. Seven took the plunge.

The next year, Rann formed a Polar Bear Club and started an annual winter tradition, which evolved over the years to become the present fundraiser for the Lions Club, regularly attracting about 1,000 participants and raising nearly $200,000 in the dozen years that it has collected pledges.

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