30 for 30

As the Polar Bear Plunge hits its 30th year, here is a memorable list of highlights to illustrate why NJSPBA members continue to go deep with their support

By Esther Gonzales 

Along Ocean Boulevard in Seaside Heights, the Polar Bear Plunge mascot embraces plungers as they pregame for the annual dip in the icy Atlantic. Among the thousands of participants and spectators, some NJSPBA members stand out more than others, dressed as Tinkerbell, Macho Man or Pikachu or in an inflatable T-Rex costume.

The Plunge has created so many scenes and moments like these that have made the event so memorable. It’s almost hard to believe what PBA members have put in to help raise hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to support Special Olympics New Jersey (SONJ).

If you haven’t seen it, you might not believe it.

“For the athletes themselves to see even a video on social media of how many are in attendance, because it’s so important to them to feel a part of something, to be able to compete, to see their families and friends through competition,” explains Raritan Township Local 337 State Delegate Meg Hammond, the PBA’s SONJ liaison. “I think that is the best part of it, how much it means to them.”

As the 30th annual SONJ Polar Bear Plunge looms on Feb. 25, members are no doubt preparing to add more scenes to the highlight reel.

In years past, donations have exceeded more than $2 million. And it seems like there is nothing members won’t do to continue that support. Like staging plunges in their backyards in 2021, when COVID wiped out the event. Or holding a splash party in the Atlantic long after all plungers have moved to dry land because they just don’t want it to ever end.

“There’s so many ways to raise money and celebrate the Plunge for what it is, especially if you can’t get out there,” Hammond adds. “And the size of the crowd from just 20 years ago, and the money raised then to the money raised now, is outstanding. You can’t do that without the help of PBA Locals going forward.”

In honor of all that PBA members do — and that they will continue to do — take this stroll down memory lane to look at 30 moments to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Polar Bear Plunge.

1 . Every year, thousands of NJSPBA members, Special Olympics athletes and spectators rush to find the iconic Polar Bear Plunge mascot and take pictures with him. The fuzzy polar bear wears red gym shorts, a blue T-shirt stamped with the NJSPBA logo, a beret and a pair of oversized sunglasses. But many may not know that behind the mask is retired Lyndhurst Local 202 member Joe Sarnoski, who has served as the mascot since 1999.

2 . It seems like the Plunge always inspires a member to get the troops fi red up. One of the more inspired participants is Local 105 member Brian Decker, who dresses up as famed wrestler Macho Man to psych up his Local team, which is one of the largest with more than 200 participants. “We do everything in our power to support each other in the PBA and give back,” Decker exclaimed.

3. The number of Locals and members participating seems to grow each year. Surveying this during a recent Plunge from Seaside Heights, NJSPBA President Pat Colligan noted, “This is where you see every cross section of our union.”

4 . West Windsor Local 271 members make it their mission to gain the full Jersey Shore experience. Every year, Local 271 plungers and their families enjoy a weekend getaway at the Jersey Shore House from the famous MTV reality show.

5 . Plunging since 2004, Jackson Township Local 168 member Chris Parise confided that there’s only one rule: “As long as you go all the way under, you qualify as a Polar Bear.”

6 . For many of the past Plunges, State Corrections Local 105 has hosted a must-be-at soiree at The Sawmill. The scene of thousands of State Corrections Local 105 members flooding the restaurant before the Plunge is like a never-ending family reunion. Local 105 sets up shop to raise funds by selling an array of items, like cigar cutters, ball caps, T-shirts and hoodies, some with slogans like “We stand for the flag. We kneel for the fallen.”

7 . “It’s an adrenaline rush,” Monmouth County Correction’s Officers Local 240 member John Quick declared during his third plunge in 2017. “You’re lining up, you’re hearing the national anthem, the helicopters are up in the air, the dive boats are in the water … it’s just incredible.”

8 . It’s truly not a Polar Bear Plunge without a challenge of who will be the last Local standing. Among the rivals are Guttenberg Local 88, Rahway Local 31 and Bayonne Local 7, whose members boast about their record of staying in the Atlantic for up to 45 minutes.

9 . West New York Local 361 member Marco Barrera takes on the challenge to be the last in the water. In 2019, Barrera achieved the title of last man standing. The more plunges he takes, the easier it seems to be. “It gets warmer every year,” Barrerra joked.

10. The last-man-standing challenge always features the motto of NJSPBA member Joe Keselica, who has plunged for several Locals. He goes by the plan “First one in, last one out.” Long after the last plungers have found their way back to the boardwalk with towels and dry clothes, Keselica can be seen standing waist-deep in the water until lifeguards usher him out.

11 . Several NJSPBA members have mastered the art of the plunge. Perhaps one of the most important things to remember comes from Passaic County Prosecutor’s Office Local 265 member Fanielle D’Annible, who revealed, “You go in, you come back out, and that’s when it gets cold. But you look around, and that’s when you know it’s for a good cause.”

12 . Among the impressive number of plungers in 2020 was Rumson Chief Scott Peterson, who generated the most individual donations, a grand total of $34,563. Peterson was seen knocking on as many doors as possible to raise funds, stating, “I pretty much harass everybody I know until they give me a donation.” Plunging since 2000, Peterson promised this was a cause he will be supporting every year “until [he] can’t walk down the beach.”

13. Holmdel Township Local 239 members had better watch out. The Polar Bear Plunge just so happens to be the test of whether new members are cut out for the job. “It’s like an initiation thing for our Local,” Local 239 member Mike Michalski quipped during his 16th plunge in 2020. “We make our new guys do it.”

14 . Looking around at the vast crowd at the Polar Bear Plunge, it’s hard to miss Middlesex County Sheriff’s Local 165 members, who sport original costumes each year. They have come as pro wrestlers, superheroes, Winter Olympians and Disney characters, to name a few. Every year, Local 165 members choose a theme. Who will they be this year?

15 . Months in advance, ew Jersey State Parole Officers Local 326 members plan for the Plunge. In the past two years, they have added more than 25 members to their team, including Local 326 Sergeant-at-Arms Tariq Richardson. Although he wasn’t planning to plunge in 2020, Richardson was inspired by the scenes of unity. And now it seems like there’s nothing that can keep him away. “There’s so much love out there,” Richardson remarked. “As long as I can be here next year, I’m going in the water.”

16 . Like many members, South Brunswick Local 166 member Jason Gassman commented about how he was hooked after his very first Plunge in 2005. Gassman deemed the Polar Bear Plunge the perfect time to “hang out with all the other cops and just be stupid.”

17 . Donning an inflatable T-Rex costume in 2017, a Woodbridge Local 38 member known only as Kevin explained his choice of costume: “Just trying to make people laugh and help out for a good cause.”

18 . In honor of their own Special Olympics athlete, Point Pleasant Borough Local 158 members have adopted the name “Piper’s Plungers.” Local 158 President Brian Fennessy deemed it amazing to know his members support individuals like his daughter, Piper.

19 . Among the iconic athletes taking part in the Plunge is someone who has indeed made his presence known — Eric Kish. Since 1998, Kish has joined NJSPBA members in the Plunge and continually serves as the inspiration for many as they brave the waves.

20. One reason why State Corrections Local 105 member Rich Kokawski loves the Polar Bear Plunge so much is because it is a prime example of how the PBA cares for its members. Sporting a green Care Bears onesie in 2022, Kokawski declared, “We realize that we all care about each other and that we should do it. This is part of taking care of the officers.” And perhaps displaying that care is why he has plunged in honor of his nephew, who is on the autism spectrum, for the past 22 years.

21 . One of the defining moments of the Plunge comes as the 1 p.m. splashdown nears. Leaders from the NJSPBA gather around New Jersey 101.5 disc jockey Big Joe Henry to present the union’s annual $5,000 donation to SONJ.

22 . For father and son Kley Peralta of Hackensack Local 9 and 11-year-old Vincente, the Polar Bear Plunge has become a family tradition. In 2017, Peralta brought his son along with him to experience the Plunge for himself. And that made the experience that much better.\

23. Woodbridge Local 38 members are indeed Bravehearts. During the Polar Bear Plunge in 2016, these Local 38 plungers painted their faces with war paint and put on their Scottish kilts, ready to brave the ocean.

24 . The perfect attendance award can certainly go to Somerset County Corrections Officers Local 177 retired member Scott Pearson. Before the Plunge was located at Seaside Heights, Pearson remembers it being hosted at Spring Lakes, and he has since never missed one.

25 . On the day of the Polar Bear Plunge, everyone seems to have someone in mind who they are plunging for. Since 2016, Western Bergen County Local 79 members take to the ocean in honor of their fallen brother, Chris Birch. Many Local 79 members described Birch as someone who would do everything he could to support the Special Olympics, so it only felt fitting to honor him in this way.

26 . Union County Sheriff’s Officers Local 108 member Brett Byron developed a profound love for the Polar Bear Plunge after she volunteered at the SONJ Summer Games. During her plunge in 2020 with a team of plungers from Elizabeth Local 4, Byron described just how impacted she was after working with Special Olympians: “They are incredible, and we do it all for them. It’s just a small sacrifice to make with people for special needs. If you see the athletes for yourself, you’ll see why you need to be here.”

27 . “Dedicated” is a word that’s hardly strong enough to describe Toms River Local 137 member Walter Herman. He is determined to plunge for as long as he can, even after he retires. Joined by 17 teammates in 2020, Herman expressed that they will be plunging in rain or shine. “Seaside may haven to come and drag us out, but we’d be here,” Herman said.

28 . Having grown up in Alaska, Meg Hammond might be the original Polar Bear. During the 2015 Plunge, Hammond expressed that although people may say it’s crazy, it’s not as bad as you think. It’s for the kids, and that’s what keeps her coming back.

29 . Just because you’ve retired doesn’t mean you can’t still be involved. Union County Prosecutor’s Office Local 250 member Jim Weinberg displays this each year. Weinberg invites a group of retired members to a large pre-plunge tailgate to support the Special Olympics. After surviving cancer, Weinberg noted in 2019 that he dedicates his plunge to all of his brothers and sisters who have lost a family member to cancer.

30. When Berkeley Township Local 237 member Patrick Coletti plunged for the fi rst time in 2017, he admitted he didn’t feel cold until he stepped out of the water. But that all went away when huddling up with the 17 Local 237 members who came out and demonstrated the virtues of mass participation. “We had such a great time this year,” Coletti expressed. “Everyone is definitely really excited about growing the participation for years to come.”