Polar Bear Plunge 2021
Stories by Rosemary An and Karen Jenkins
PBA members have made the icy dip uniquely stylish
By Rosemary An
Middlesex County Sheriff's Local 165 donned Disney character costumes in 2020.
There’s no telling who you’ll run into at the Polar Bear Plunge. It could be anyone from Disney characters to pro wrestlers to Santa Claus. With a fully bearded man dressed as Tinkerbell and a tattooed Minnie Mouse, the annual Polar Bear Plunge becomes a true costume party.
Costume culture at the Polar Bear Plunge grows stronger by the year. By 2020, several Locals, including Middlesex County Sheriff’s Local 165, Northern Valley Local 233, Woodbridge Local 38 and Plainsboro Local 319 were bringing their costumes to life, exemplifying their “all-in” mentality to show up for Special Olympics New Jersey at the half-day event.
Middlesex County Sheriff’s Local 165’s plunge team embodies the spirit of dressing up for the event. Their team picks a new theme every year and parades around the event in flashy costumes, making their presence known to the thousands of spectators.
But members don’t choose their own characters — they use a number generator to determine who wears what costume, randomly picking a character name out of a hat.
“We always like to have a group theme together, because we want to look in sync,” shared Chris Vance, the Local’s plunge team leader of seven years. “Regarding which costumes to wear, we operate on a ‘you get what you get and you don’t get upset’ system.”
At the 2020 Polar Bear Plunge, the Local’s 20 members picked the theme of Disney characters. By the time they hit Ocean Avenue, Tinkerbell, Minnie Mouse, Moana, Buzz Lightyear, Pocahontas, Donald Duck, Snow White and Rafiki, among others, were partaking in their standard pre-plunge diet.
Members buy or make the costumes, with some putting their own creative twists to make their characters pop. In 2019, Vance dressed as Nature Boy Ric Flair when the team chose to be pro wrestlers.
“It’s actually pretty cool to see each other’s ingenuity,” Vance mentioned. “Most of the people don’t even show anyone else [their costumes] until they get there. They have a lot of pride in it, so they like it to be a big reveal at the event.”
The 2021 Polar Bear Plunge was supposed to be Local 165’s best one yet, until the COVID-19 pandemic forced the event to go virtual.
“Our original plan [for costumes] was going to be bigger and better than ever,” Vance revealed. “We had a literal treat for everyone there. Now, we’re still going to be dressing up, but with a different theme.”
Northern Valley Local 233 likes to show up to the event in style, and their plunge team of 25 dressed up in Santa costumes for 2017. The Local has also dressed as wrestlers, Batman and Robin, Mardi Gras–goers and even the dodgeball team from Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story.
In 2016, Woodbridge Local 38 members doused themselves in war paint to match the characters in the film Braveheart. And a member who goes only by “Kevin” dressed in an inflatable T. rex costume a year later.
At the 2019 Polar Bear Plunge, the historic 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team that beat the Soviet Union in a “Miracle on Ice” game was brought to life by the members of Plainsboro Local 319. Member Nick Fazio’s jersey was that of Mike Eruzione, the Olympic hockey team captain who scored the game-winning goal in the remarkable victory.
With this display, costume culture borrowed from the venerable speech that coach Herb Brooks made to the team before they went out and beat the Russians. He extolled that “Great moments are born from great opportunity.” The opportunity to plunge in costume has certainly made the event all that much more momentous.
Preparing to plunge
By Karen Jenkins
An artful plunge takes purposeful preparation. Some members, like NJ State Corrections Local 105’s Keith Allen, begin preparing days before the event.
In 2013, Allen said that his preparation typically includes drinking tea and eating soup the night before, then starting the day of the dive with a bowl of hot oatmeal.
For other members, preparation is based in Local traditions. The same spots year after year are where most members can be found staying warm and getting hyped up for the afternoon plunge.
- Procure a vehicle to transport members — Local 319 prefers an RV.
- Park the RV on site the night before the event.
- Designate members as chefs and have them up by 8 a.m. to get the grills working.
- Make sure one member of the group is participating in the event for the first time.
- Remember that it’s all about raising funds.
- Think of your own personal reason for plunging.
Plainsboro Local 319 members pose in front of their RV in 2017.
Local 319’s plunge coordinator, Tom Newbon, likes to have at least 25 members in attendance to give the Local a big presence on the shore — and his team always has a personal tie to Special Olympics New Jersey.
“In Plainsboro/West Windsor, we had a guy whose daughter competed in the Special Olympics,” Newbon expressed. “I have a daughter with autism, and I have put medals on the athletes. It’s a great thing. It’s about the kids, doing something for them and knowing how much is going toward them.”
At the end of the event, members know the preparation was worth it when they get to take the icy dunk while holding their Local’s flag high above the waves.
Sights like Bayonne Local 7 member Joe Heaney waving his Local’s flag in the surf in 2013 are inspiring motivators to continue purposeful preparation for the plunge year after year.
“It gives us a chance to meet [other Locals]” Heaney affirmed about the event. “I enjoy the fact that I can help give these kids and adults the privilege to be able to compete in these [Special Olympics] games.”
Art of the plunge
The art of plunging is a time-honored tradition with specific customs. Here are some tips from PBA members to ensure that your plunge — wherever it may be this year — goes successfully.
Go all the way under
Ahead of the 2015 plunge, Jackson Township Local 168 member Chris Parise gave his firm belief that anybody who goes under the waves has made the full dunk.
“Going in the water is not the hard part,” he shared. “And as long as you go all the way under, you qualify as a polar bear.”
Aberdeen Township Local 163 member John Powers brought his two daughters for their first plunge in 2014 and offered his seasoned advice: “Dive quickly, turn around and get out. As long as you get your hair wet, you’ve done a good job.”
When heading into water that Allendale-Waldwick Local 217 member Vic Bartoloma said was like “running through a plate-glass window,” speed is key. Mercer County Correctional Officers Local 167’s Keith Krasznai kept it short with his advice to “run as fast as you can and hope for the best.”
Clark Township Local 125 member Ted McKeown has developed a strategy, which is maneuvering through the crowd “like a guppy,” straight into the water.
And West New York Local 351 member Leo Abreu said there’s no way to prepare for the iciness. “The key is running in,” Abreu expressed in 2020. “Go in deep and wait for all the amateurs to run out, and then you come back out after.”
Have the right gear
Local 271 State Delegate Franceso LaTorre has the secret to a successful plunge: “You have to wear shoes to go in the water,” he explained in 2016. “We’ve had some plunges over the years when you’d have to walk over ice to get to the water.”
As for getting out of the cold? Woodbridge Local 31 member Tom Ratajczak offered: “Make sure there’s a towel waiting for you.”
Remember the reason
Once you’re frozen, what’s the easiest way to warm up back on shore? Passaic County Prosecutors Local 265 Financial Secretary Danielle D’Annible reminded members in 2018 to think about the athletes.
“You don’t feel [the cold] at first, you feel it a few minutes after,” D’Annible provided. “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.”
We are freezin’, but for a reason
A review of the iconic ‘Last Man Standing’ challenges of plunges past
By Rosemary An
More than 30 minutes have passed since Polar Bear Plungers have vacated the ocean, but a handful of brave — and perhaps a little outrageous — NJSPBA members hang out like it’s another day at the beach. Truth is, they are part of a unique club trying to outdo each other by being the last one to get out.
“We stay until hypothermia begins to set in,” said Joe Keselica, Guttenberg Local 88 member and infamous plunger, back in 2013 during his sixth plunge.
Every year at the Polar Bear Plunge, there are always a few last members staying in the water after all the other plungers have retreated back to the beach.
The “Last Man Standing” at the annual event is really more like the last one to come out of the splash party. Members from several Locals, including Rahway Local 31, State Corrections Local 105 and Bayonne Local 7, have staged a friendly competition the past few years to see who can stay in the freezing cold Atlantic waters the longest.
Nobody really knows for sure when or how the challenge began. Three locals — Guttenberg, Rahway and Bayonne — have been doing it since at least 2008. But over the years, members of other Locals started participating to take home the title.
There isn’t a real trophy or certificate of achievement for out-freezing each other. But the members’ hardcore dedication to the plunge certainly makes it seem like there should be.
Keselica, who has a special connection to the cause, operates under the motto “First one in, last one out.” Almost every year, he has been seen standing waist-deep in the water for 35 minutes as a tribute to his brother, who has special needs.
“Yes, I’m frozen,” Keselica shared when he emerged victorious during the 2015 challenge. “But every year I’m going to be the last guy standing.”
To colorize what the challenge actually looks like in the water, Rahway Local 31 member Jim Crowell offered an explanation.
“They look at us, we look at them and we’re like, ‘Nope, we’re not leaving,’” he mentioned during his 13th plunge in 2019.
Local 31 proudly flies its flag in the water every year, withstanding the chill until the lifeguards force them out. For more than a decade, the Local has been among the last standing in the waves.
Crowell has taken part in the last-one-out celebration for years. In 2016, he stayed in the water for 33 minutes before “they threw us all out together.” One of the two other Local 31 members who stayed with Crowell was Mike Twerdak, the team’s flag-bearer for the second consecutive year.
Twerdak described the extra responsibility that came with representing his Local with their flag, including having to get far enough out to clear the mass of plungers and getting over a sandbar.
“You have to stay out there the longest, even when you can’t feel your legs,” he remarked. “That’s what it’s about.”
Surprisingly however, the real challenge is not jumping into freezing waters or even staying in. It’s getting out of the water that proves to be the real struggle.
“The hardest part is when you leave the sandbar,” Keselica noted in 2017. “You’re trying to come back [onto shore], and the waves are hitting you.”
Regardless of frigid temperatures and not being able to feel their lower limbs, members boast about going back for the next year because the real winner is always Special Olympics. As Local 105 member Rick Fletcher walked back on shore after winning the challenge in 2016, he was unable to feel his feet.
But Fletcher believed that to be only a minor inconvenience, considering what Polar Bear Plunge is all about.
“[Special Olympians] struggle every day, so why not struggle a few minutes for them,” he confided.
The 2019 “Last Man Standing” winner would agree. As a veteran of the challenge, he knows the toll that the extended swim takes on his body. “I will feel it later today,” he joked after his plunge. “[But] we do it for Special Olympics.”
Although the 2021 Polar Bear Plunge has become virtual due to COVID-19 pandemic concerns, surely there will be members competing for the “Last Man Standing” title at next year’s plunge. After all, these dedicated plungers enjoy freezin’ for a reason.
“Once we get out there, it’s all worth it,” Crowell shared in 2018 after his 12th plunge. “I have some friends who have special-needs kids, and they’re very appreciative. To be able to raise so much money just jumping in the ocean, it’s crazy.”
‘It’s a family thing, too’
For the past 27 years, Locals from all over New Jersey have gathered at the Polar Bear Plunge every March with their own plunge teams and garnered thousands of spectators. Their camaraderie was exemplified as they would run into the freezing cold water to raise awareness for Special Olympics. But for some members, like Local 286 member Eddie Akins Sr., the Polar Bear Plunge is more than just a department event — it is a family one.
Akins, of Passaic County Sheriff’s SOA Local 286, had 20 years of plunging under his belt before introducing his son to the spirited cause that law enforcement gives back to every year. Eddie Akins Jr., a Paterson Local 1 member, joined his father for their first plunge together in 2019.
But Eddie Sr. forgot his bathing suit at home, leaving Eddie Jr. no choice but to strip down to his underwear to lend his father the swim trunks he was wearing. The father–son duo took the icy dip together, along with 15 other Local 286 members.
“Although it’s a big department thing, it’s a family thing, too,” Akins shared in 2019. “We get an opportunity to come out together.”
In another father–son combo, Hackensack Local 9 member Kley Peralta brought his 11-year-old son, Vincente, to plunge at the 2017 Polar Bear Plunge. Peralta was no first-timer to the plunge and knew what he was in for. He felt as though his son was ready to plunge for a cause, and the two stood side by side doing just that.
“It’s for a great cause,” Peralta noted at the time. “And to be here with my son makes it even better.”
State Corrections 105 member Lance Lopez made the 2014 Polar Bear Plunge a family affair, with a total of seven family members plunging at the event. Lopez’s wife, Adela, had plunged in the past four years, getting herself ready for the family plunge in 2014. Other family members included Adela’s mother, aunts, godsister, goddaughter and 22-year-old daughter Quanah.
The Lopez team raised more than $1,000 for the plunge, helping to raise the Local’s contribution for Special Olympics to more than $7,600. “It’s really a morale booster for all the members,” Lopez mentioned in 2014. “For us, this event is about helping out a great cause and camaraderie.”
Faces of the Plunge
Among the thousands of plungers who come out to Seaside Heights every year, one person consistently stands out in the crowd: Eric Kish.
Kish, a spirited Special Olympics New Jersey athlete who has plunged since 1998, serves as inspiration for PBA members every year while braving the icy waves. He warms up the crowd before the event and always takes the plunge himself.
And, nearly every year that Kish has emanated joy on the boardwalk, he’s taken a picture with another guest of honor. Joe Sarnoski, retired member of Lyndhurst Local 202, has worn a polar bear costume and been the official PBA plunge mascot for 22 years.
“[The athletes] are very motivated all the time to just keep going, and that really inspires me,” Sarnoski shared. “I have people that come in every year and take a picture with me — [Eric] takes a picture with me, and the following year he’ll copy the picture with a frame.”
The retired officer is proud to be the furry face of the plunge, roaming the boardwalk and stopping for photo ops with people from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. every year. The origin of the suit goes back to 1999.
Sarnoski’s wife, Michelle, is a talented seamstress and offered to make a costume for him specifically for the plunge. He showed her a picture, and from that, she was able to construct a full polar bear bodysuit for Sarnoski just days before the event. He headed to Seaside to take photos with plungers.
“Since ’99, it’s really just gotten bigger and bigger,” he laughed. “When people sign up in the [Special Olympics New Jersey] tent, I’m outside. They can take pictures with me.”
Kish and Sarnoski have become Polar Bear Plunge icons, and if you’re lucky enough to say hi to both of them on the boardwalk one of those chilly Saturday mornings at Seaside, you’re sure to have a successful plunge.
“It’s a wonderful thing,” Sarnoski expressed. “Hopefully [COVID-19] will be over soon, and we can get back to normal and have these events again.”
Freezin' for the same reason
Ask any NJSPBA member on the day of the plunge why they’re standing on the chilled sand with minimal clothing and maximum energy in 20-degree weather. Every single officer on that beach will stop shivering for just a moment and meet your eyes with overwhelming sincerity: “For the Special Olympics athletes, of course.”
For many members, the reasons are personal. Rahway Local 31 member Edward O’Donnell’s teenage son has special needs and competes in the Special Olympics at his school every year. O’Donnell took over organizing Rahway’s Polar Bear Plunge team in 2020.
“It’s all for the athletes,” O’Donnell shared at the 2020 plunge. “This is what it’s all about, giving back to the community and to that organization that’s been so good to so many others. If we could raise $2 million, we would do it.”
Along with close ties to Special Olympics athletes, some Locals also choose to dedicate the plunge to a fallen brother or sister in blue, or someone else with special significance to the Local.
In 2016, Hunterdon County Local 188 honored Tony Tierno, a Delaware Township resident, who had been involved with Special Olympics New Jersey since 1986. He eventually became the state director and head coach of the New Jersey Team USA. He passed away on May 18, 2015.
“It’s a huge loss for the Special Olympics,” Local 188 member Frank Emanuele relayed during the 2016 plunge. “We can remember and honor Tierno’s legacy just by participating and trying to raise as much money as possible.”
When PBA members run into the icy waves every winter with the faces of the people whom they plunge for running through their heads, year after year they’re reminded that they are freezin’ for a reason.
“It’s the minimum we can do,” O’Donnell proclaimed. “[The Polar Bear Plunge] has been the biggest pleasure in my career. More than anything I’ve done in my career as a cop — this has been the best part of it.”