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100 Things: Olcott Polar Bear Swim for Sight

Once upon a time, the Niagara County hamlet of Olcott was known for its Coney Island-like attractions. Even though the world has changed, this picturesque place retains its sense of fun.

Witness the Olcott Pirate Festival, which takes place every July, complete with a magnificent car show. And the 1928 Olcott Carousel, which spins to the tune of a 1931 Wurlitzer organ beneath the famous Olcott Lighthouse.

Most dramatically, check out the Olcott Lions Club Swim For Sight, the first Sunday in March.

You get into your bathing suit, rush with your friends to the frozen shore of icy Lake Ontario, and jump in. And, as your knees knock and your teeth chatter, you cry out:

Whose idea was this?

Like many of Western New York's best traditions, this one began in a bar.

[Photos of the swim | Smiles gallery from 2015]

Participants in the 2015 Olcott Polar Bear Swim for Sight. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News file photo)

One frigid Sunday in February 1968, several hardy Western New Yorkers were drinking beer at Mike's Black Stallion Tavern in Olcott. They got to bragging about how they laughed at harsh winters. Each one tried to one-up the other. Long boozy story short, that very afternoon, seven foolhardy folks left the bar and jumped in the lake.

[RELATED: Area firefighters keep the 'Polar Bears' safe]

Naturally, the tradition caught on.

The year after that first historic swim, Mike Rann, the owner of the tavern, arranged a Polar Bear Club. Every year more people joined in. The swimmers would assemble annually at the bar. Led by a brass band, they would parade to Krull Park beach, where they took the plunge as crowds cheered.

Costumes are welcome at the Polar Bear Swim for Sight. (Don Nieman/Special to The News)

Mike's Black Stallion Tavern was torn down in the 1980s. Rann himself died in 2013. But the Polar Bear swim survives, and like Luna, the polar bear at the Buffalo Zoo, it seems to get bigger all the time. This year, said organizer Bill Clark of the Olcott Lions Club, some 500 are expected.

Last year, one newcomer was Deanna Scibilia, of North Tonawanda. She was there, she admitted, as a result of the 100 Things. She had made a New Year's resolution to accomplish all of them. And so she was determined to do the Polar Bear Swim, even though everyone she knew thought she was crazy.

A pharmacist and a millennial, Scibilia is health-conscious and made sure she prepared.

"We set up shop in one of the parking lots. We had our little tailgate grilling going. We did hot dogs, hamburgers. Also they have events on Main Street in Olcott. The local firemen put on a chili competition. You can purchase a mug that benefits the firemen. So we did that. You spend the day walking around. They also have the Polar Bear Queen, so you can register for that."

The premise of the Swim for Sight is to raise money for the Lions Club. Water temperatures in the 30s are the main challenge. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News file photo)

The actual plunge is coordinated for safety's sake. Each group gets a number. "Whoever comes with you can go with you to the water area. They hold your towel and change of clothes," explained Scibilia. "The worst part of it is getting undressed and waiting to go into the water while you're in your bathing suit. Once you're in the water, you don't even think about it."

You don't?

Scibilia insisted it was so. "Once you're out, the air is usually colder than the water. So you want to go back in the water."

Wisely, she resisted that impulse. "They lead you back up. They have a whole tent area, a private changing area for women and men. They encourage you to get out of your wet clothes right away, to avoid hypothermia." After you're dressed again, the party continues. "You have hot chocolate, and more chili.

Spectators are welcome at the Olcott Polar Bear Swim for Sight, too. (Don Nieman/Special to The News)

"This year I'm dragging my husband because he said he would do it too. It was a really cool event to do."

"Cool" is an understatement. Clark, who has run the event for over 10 years, laughed that the water is too chilly for him.

"It takes a special character," he said. "Of course, there are a lot of them around."

Want to take the plunge? Rally at Krull Park on March 5. Registration starts at 11 a.m.; the Polar Bear Queen contest starts at 1:45 p.m.; and at 2 p.m., it's time for the swim.

The event has benefited the Lions Club since the 1990s -- Mike Rann was a member -- and swimmers often raise money for the cause from family and friends. But it's perfectly OK to fund yourself, showing up with the minimum donation of $25. You'll get a T-shirt -- and, said Clark, a sublime sense of accomplishment.

"Some people are hesitant going in," he said. "But when they come out, they're exhilarated."

As are we all.

"This winter hasn't been so bad," Clark reflected. "But at the end of a tough winter, people see this as the threshold of spring."

Braving frigid cold waters is part of the draw of the Olcott Polar Bear Swim for Sight. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News file photo)

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