Our region has weathered a few polar vortexes over the years, but some members of the Order of Owls 1038 in Fredericktown are planning their own icy start to 2018 by partaking in the traditional Polar Plunge into the Monongahela River.
It all started with a bet between Millsboro resident Rick Zibrida, his brother Michael and three cousins who were in town for a favorite aunt’s funeral 21 years ago. Zibrida recalls the cousin bet his brother $100 that he would jump into the river and the entire group of five decided to take the first plunge on New Year’s Day 1996. Since the whole group jumped in, no one had to pay out any money. Afterward, the chilly quintet headed to their usual New Year’s Day gathering spot for college bowl game watching at the Owls Club on Route 88.
“We told some of the guys we jumped in the river and they asked why we didn’t ask them to jump,” Zibrida remembers. “We started talking about putting something up on the board for the next year to start a Polar Plunge in 1997.”
No one thought much about the rest of the year, but the tradition continued once New Year’s Day rolled around again.
“New year’s Day 1997, the same five of us went in and we got a few people from the Owls Club to jump in … there may have been eight of us and word spread,” Zibrida says. “The following year, nearly 40 people took the Polar Plunge and it has become a New Year’s tradition ever since.”
This will mark the 21st year of the Polar Plunge and Rick guesses he’s taken on the icy challenge 15 times.
“I took a little break for probably six or seven years and jumped back in the past two years,” says the 55-year-old Millsboro resident. “My brother probably has the longest tenure of jumping in, but he took a break for a few years, too.”
If you’re thinking that warmer temperatures outside might make the bracing shot of cold water more tolerable, think again.
“It’s not as bad as everyone thinks,” Zibrida says. “You jump in the water and you get that initial feeling, and then you’re rushing to get out and you can walk out of the water after you jump off the dock. For me, standing in the water to take a picture is more excruciating than jumping in the water. To be honest, I believe that when the temperature is warmer – like 40 or 50 – it’s worse jumping in than when it’s 10 or 20 degrees, because you really feel the difference.”
The real pain of the Polar Plunge actually sets in several minutes after the icy jump.
“It’s a mad rush to get back into the Owls Club and there’s only one rest room in there each – for men and ladies – and everyone is scrambling, soaking wet with wet piles of clothes everywhere,” Zibrida laughs.
How do they warm up after their endeavor? “You just start enjoying the party eating and drinking and watching the bowl games.”
Wearing a wet suit might mitigate some of the shock, but Polar Plungers usually don costumes ranging from scant Speedo swimsuits to men in drag and all kinds of crazy getups, including elf costumes.
Why, after enduring the icy chill once on a New Year’s Day, would someone take the Polar Plunge again, let alone do it 15 times?
“It’s for the fun of it,” Zibrida says. “We jump in at noon every New Year’s Day and have a little vigil remembering members who passed during the year. One year, we had a really cold winter and there was a sheet of ice on the river we had to break to jump in.”
Still, they persevered and have had friends, family and fellow Owls club members join in ranging from kids as young as 10 to adults of all ages.
This year’s annual New Year’s Day Polar Plunge into the Monongahela River will take place at noon in Fredericktown, preceded with a candlelight vigil and moment of silence for members of the Owls Club who passed during 2017. If you’re brave enough to join them, Rick Zibrida and company look forward to seeing you there.