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Hundreds take part in 2023 Polar Bear Swim on New Year’s Day in Kenosha

There’s nothing like starting the new year with a crisp dive into frigid Lake Michigan with hundreds of other area residents.

At 11 a.m. on New Year’s Day participants braved the cold and waded into the waters at Simmons Island Beach, 5001 Fourth Ave., for the 2023 Polar Bear Swim.

The free event, organized by Brian Vaccaro of Diver Dan’s Scuba Center and the Kenosha County Dive team, included men, women and children. Vacarro and others from the Kenosha County Scout Leaders Rescue Squad helped ensure the event was safe for swimmers.

Participants began gathering at the beach around 10:30 a.m. and many wrapped themselves in blankets and sipped hot drinks.

The annual event had been cancelled in recent years due to dangerous currents and freezing temperatures. On Sunday, the weather was mild, and temperatures hovered between the high 30s and low 40s.

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“We’re excited to have it this year because it’s been a while between COVID-19 and the weather of the last few years,” Vaccaro said. “It’s been a tradition that’s gone on for a long, long time. It’s one of those traditional things some people want to try to do. I’ve also heard of some people participating because they lost bets.”

Vaccaro suggested participants “run into the water as quickly as you can.”

“The faster the water hits you, the better,” Vaccaro said. “Make sure you have somebody to help warm you up afterwards and wear something on your feet. … Then get dry as quickly as possible and get into your nice warm car.”

Although the weather was mild, Vacarro said the cold can still surprise folks.

“It can be kind of deceiving sometimes when it’s a little warmer like this because, when you get out into the water it’s colder, and then when you get out it’s that much colder,” he added.

Bryan Tijerina, of Kenosha, said he took part in the event to honor his father.

“I’ve always wanted to do it,” Tijerina said. “I wanted to try something new to start out this new year, and do this in memory of my dad who passed away on Sept. 21.”

His father, Richard Tijerina, was a former Kenosha County Sheriff’s deputy and U.S. Army veteran.

“I’m a little nervous,” Bryan Tijerina said. “My plan is to go into (the water) to my knees and then drop.”

He had his father’s name written on his back with marker.

Kenosha County Executive Samantha Kerkman also plunged into the water.

“I hear you have to go all the way under. I was not planning on going all the way under. I was just planning to go up to my neck but they said it doesn’t count if you don’t go all the way under. My goal is to go all the way under,” Kerkman said.

Kerkman’s sons offered her a blanket when she exited the water.

“Some people come here to show off a little skin. I came here to show off a little muscle,” Paul Roskres joked. “I can finally say that I did this!”

Roskres, of Kenosha, donned a suit to resemble muscles and sinew for the event. 

Kenoshan Eleanor Dombkowski, 11, took part in the event for the first time Sunday. She was accompanied by her parents.

“I just had a passion to do it,” Dombkowski said before the swim. “I’m a little bit nervous.”

After the dive she was back inside her parents car.

“She survived!” her mom shouted.

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