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Hundreds of 'polar bears' challenge the whitecaps Sunday at Olcott Beach

OLCOTT BEACH – Dee Curtis left behind the surf and sun of her coastal Carolina winter home Sunday for the surf and sun in Lake Ontario.

Literally, in Lake Ontario.

Curtis, who turned 70 in January, was one of the 400 or so swimmers who charged into the lake’s frigid whitecaps at the 49th annual Polar Bear Swim for Sight.

In her one-piece black swimsuit, sneakers, plush polar bear bomber hat and a few tattoos, Curtis wasn’t sporting the flashiest outfit in a field that included a court jester, a grown man fully dressed in a yellow "Despicable Me" minion suit and an Irish Elvis.

She had something the others didn’t, though.

“It’s my 35th year,” Curtis said. “Half of my life, I’ve been going in.”

Dee Curtis of Niagara Falls left her husband and warmer weather at their winter home in North Carolina to come to Olcott Beach Sunday for the Polar Bear Swim of Sight. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

What makes a person want to do that?

“It takes a special character,” said Bill Clark, chairman of the Polar Bear Swim. “And, there are a lot of them.”

The annual event is sponsored by the Olcott Lions Club as a way to support community and sight programs and other organizations in Niagara County.

Sunday’s water temperature – in the mid-30s – was just a little bit warmer than the 32-degree air. The sunshine and blue skies overhead were trumped by a gusty, 20 mph northwest wind that made things feel a lot colder.

Swimmers didn’t linger in the water – lasting maybe 30 seconds or so, but you could probably hear all the hooting, hollering and screaming from Youngstown.

“It felt like 10,000 epidural shots at one time,” quipped Frank Rising, the president of the Redmen Club in Lockport who swam in the minion costume.

Sunday's brisk winds and the lake's five-foot swells made Rising declare this year’s event as his second-most uncomfortable polar bear swim in 15 years.

The other time?

“They had to dig the ice out of here with a backhoe,” Rising said.

The lack of jagged ice chunks along the shore, which are known to cut swimmers’ skin, made Sunday’s event better than past years, Curtis said.

“This year was great,” she said.

First-timers Jennifer Peete, 38, of Wilson and Bianca Parker, 26, of Lockport, agreed.

“It was the best thing ever,” Peete said after exiting the lake. “I can’t believe I did that. I want to go again.”

Jennifer Peete of Wilson and Bianca Parker of Lockport after their first time in Lake Ontario at the Polar Bear Swim. (T.J. Pignataro/Buffalo News)

After visiting the event as spectators in past years, the gym sisters at Curves in Lockport took their first-ever plunges into the waves Sunday.

“This is a night-and-day difference,” Parker said.

The women said they swam to support their mentor at Curves, Sally Reid, who is battling lung cancer. They raised more than $600.

“We went in for her,” said Peete, who dressed as a kitten and wore a “Curves Strong” T-shirt.

Parker wore a multicolored mesh tutu and a Curves T-shirt with a pink ribbon to support those with cancer.

No matter what the weather is like, or what the reason is for swimming in Lake Ontario in March, locals said Polar Bear weekend is an Olcott tradition.

“It’s just a day for people to be laid back and get out after a long winter,” said Karen Young, a shopkeeper at The Gift Box in Lakeview Village. “People are in a good mood, and it’s all for a good cause.”

The polar bears will celebrate a big milestone in 2019 – 50 years in the lake.

What do organizers have planned?

“We’re still working on that,” Clark said.

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