Portage Lakes Polar Bear Club’s 2013 jump raises more than $80,000 for foodbank, but event is personal for one area family.
More than $80,000 was raised for the Akron Regional Foodbank at the 10th annual Polar Bear Jump. And it was about as cold as one would expect in Northeast Ohio in the middle of February. But Kara O’Neill’s decision to join hundreds of others to jump off a dock into a nearly frozen portion of the Portage Lakes on Feb. 16 was particularly personal.
“My uncle, Rich Roth, is why we are here - the team is a family,” said Kara, a Green resident and one of the 14 jumpers and nearly 50 supporters that made up Team “Rich’s Rascals.”
Roth himself called the gathering a celebration of life.
“This is not to be morbid,” said Rich, a Copley Township resident. “My family wanted to do something positive in light of my little setback.”
One month ago, Rich was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer that had moved into his liver.
“The diagnosis is pretty grim, but I don’t believe them,” Roth said. “I am doing good right now — I’m in chemo, which has brought back some of my energy.”
The energy level for both Roth and the Polar Bear Jump was palatable as his purple-tutu adorned family laughed and shivered outside their trailer in the parking lot next to the jump site in Portage Lakes State Park. Roth’s daughter and family event organizer Courtney Roth said purple is the official color of pancreatic cancer support.
Courtney, a three-time Polar Bear jumper, put the word out on Facebook, and within a week, the family — including all seven of Rich’s siblings who came to the event from around the country — was all in.
The tutus were more of her cousin Kara’s idea.
“I just thought of what might be fun,” Kara said of the tutu angle. “So we had a tutu-making party last night.”
Otherwise, preparing for the jump was far from time consuming.
“It wasn’t much to prepare,” Kara said. “I didn’t get dressed until 11 a.m., and just a couple layers of Under Armour and a couple of beverages to warm up — coffee I mean — and I was ready to go.”
Her husband, 98.1 WKDD morning show host Keith Kennedy, was supportive — to a degree.
“When am I going in? July 28,” Kennedy quipped. “Jumping in a frozen lake sounds crazy, but this really does feel like a summer party, and it is great to see the family support (for Rich).”
Kara’s brother, Sean O’Neill, said that when he saw the Facebook post, he did not hesitate.
“I said I’d go, since everyone else was, and it kind of snowballed from there,” he said.
As the clock wound down to Rich’s Rascals’ scheduled 3 p.m. jump time, Kara went into attempted-self-assuredness mode.
Page 2 of 3 - “It’s pretty cold out here now, so maybe the water will be warmer,” she said, staring pensively at the increasingly foreboding lake past the treeline below the Rich’s Rascals trailer.
Aaron “Pottsy” Poggs of Carrollton was not among the first jumpers to hit the water but was certainly a Polar Bear Jump veteran.
“Where did I first hear of it? Actually standing in the men’s room at Jerzee’s,” said Poggs, colorfully adorned in an orange hunting cap and not much else. “I told my brother-in-law that looks crazy, we should do it.”
This year marked Pogg’s ninth jump and his 8-year-old daughter Elizabeth’s third.
“I don’t think it’s that cold out,” Poggs said. “And jumping is no different than getting in a cold pool, but I don’t want to hang out in there. I don’t think there is any grey area. Doing this is either a yes or no decision.”
Along with having one of the youngest-ever Polar Bear jumpers in his group, Pogg’s friend Joe Benek was perhaps the farthest traveled after making the 2,800-mile trip from Los Angeles.
As the first jumpers shivered their way out of the lake, Alysha Knafel, Ashley Shultz and Courtney Shawbell, all of Akron, seemed far too festive for having just taken a subfreezing plunge.
“It was good,” said Knafel. “But I lost my flip flop, then I came up and my friend hit me on the head, so I’m not liking her right now.”
Shultz said the group raised $100 at last year’s event and doubled its fundraising efforts this year. She managed to explain the sensation of a Polar Bear Jump through chattering teeth.
“The best way to describe it ... is ... invigorating,” she said.
Sean O’Neill’s hands are shoved into the pockets of his tutu-decorated pants as he stares at the lake, seemingly willing it to get warmer.
He is told the Akron group just said the water is “invigorating.”
Sean’s expression remained unmoved and his eyes stayed glued to the lake in front of him.
“Oh, I’m sure it is,” he replied.
3:30 p.m. (post jump)
“It wasn’t really that bad,” Kara said following her inaugural jump. “Not as bad as I’d anticipated. When you first hit the water, it literally takes your breath away, but your body adjusts and you find your way out of the water.”
Warming up, like jumping in, went more quickly than anticipated, she said.
“I was warm in probably 15 minutes, and my toes were the only things that were still numb,” she said. “But I will absolutely do it again. I know there is a different charity each year, but Keith and I are year-round supporters of the food bank, and it’s a fun way to support a charity.”
Page 3 of 3 - And, of course, Kara has a much more personal reason for making the Polar Bear Jump an annual event.
“We did it for my uncle, and his prognosis isn’t good, but it is something my family can always do in his honor,” she said. “We did it as a fun family thing, everyone is here and you will see us back for sure.”