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On the Record with Frank Nelson of the Pittsburgh Polar Bear Club

"People ask, 'How do you prep for it?' There is no preparation."

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Frank Nelson of the Polar Bear Club
  • Photo by Heather Mull
  • Frank Nelson on the banks of the frozen Allegheny River

When City Paper wanted to find a brave soul to pose for our outdoor cover shoot last week, our mind immediately went to the brave — some might say crazy — folks in the Pittsburgh Polar Bear Club. That led us to the group's president, Frank Nelson, and after he thawed out from our subzero photo shoot, we asked him what makes a sane person decide to take this kind of plunge. Turns out, it's all for a good cause.

What is the Pittsburgh Polar Bear Club and what is its mission?

It's a group of crazies celebrating the New Year by taking a dip in the Mon River. The mission is to have fun and to raise money for Project Bundle-Up.

How did you get involved with the club?

Back in 1966, when I lived on Mount Washington, I had seen this group of guys doing this bit for years. So, I figured, what the heck. I walked from Mount Washington, down Sycamore Street, across the Smithfield Bridge, down the Mon Warf and joined the group of older men. I've been doing it ever since. The oldest gentleman died in the 1980s. Since he was the last original member of that group, I kept doing it and became president.

What the heck makes you want to jump into a freezing, cold river?

Right now it's tradition and longevity. I grew up around water, so it's something to start the New Year off on the right foot. ... It's a yearly high.

When we were doing the photo shoot for the cover, you told me another crazy story about people jumping into a pool once an hour for 24 hours. When does that event happen?

Usually in December. Special Olympics has an event and they call it the Polar Plunge. Super-plungers raise $2,500 and pledge to plunge once an hour for 24 hours. It used to be in the Allegheny River near the River Rescue boathouse. In the dark hours, people felt like, "What lurks beneath?" you know. ... [Now,] an organization donates a pool and sets it up outside of the Hard Rock Café, in Station Square, and they plunge in there once an hour for 24 straight.

Do you participate?

Oh yeah! My record is plunging 52 times in the water within a 24-hour period.

Does doing something as crazy as getting nearly naked in freezing temps and jumping into a river fit with your philosophy on life?

It fits. You can't take anything like this seriously. People ask, "How do you prep for it?" There is no preparation. I'm not going to subject my body to ice baths before I do this thing. I just do it. You can't really think about it. It used to be I'd drive along the parkway on New Year's Day and say, "Why am I really doing this?" But I guess the brain cells have gone, and there's really no more thinking about that.

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