ITHACA, N.Y. –  Thirty brave souls dove into the new year with a frosty swim in Cayuga Lake for Tuesday’s 4th Annual Ithaca Chill Challenge, raising more than $40,000 for Ithaca Community Recovery. It was the first time the fundraiser, which is held each New Year’s Day at the Ithaca Yacht Club, reached its ambitious goal.

ICR is a non-profit organization that works to support addiction recovery by providing space for meetings and activities at 518 West Seneca Street. When planning committee co-chairs Carol Miller and Judy Epstein launched the Chill Challenge in 2016, they were hoping to raise funds to maintain safe, supportive facilities at 518.

Roy Murdough, Carol Miller and Judy Epstein present prizes at the Ithaca Chill Challenge. (Devon Magliozzi/Ithaca Voice)

Thomas Evans, president of the ICR board of directors, told participants Tuesday that Miller and Epstein’s efforts have allowed for major improvements at 518, including meeting space renovations, new bathrooms and security upgrades.

Thanking Miller and Epstein, Evans said, “They started it, they continue to run it, and without them, we wouldn’t have $125,000 at 518.”

Epstein said she’s thrilled the 2019 event reached its $40,000 fundraising goal.

“We’re just so grateful,” she said. She said she was also grateful that she didn’t have to take the frigid dip.

All 64 participants registered for the Chill Challenge had a chance to avoid the cold waters of Cayuga by convincing their friends and family to pay to keep them on shore. On each person’s fundraising page, donors could vote to “dip ’em” or “dodge ’em,” either sending participants running into the lake or leaving them comfortably dry. About half of the participants, like Epstein, were spared the swim by collecting more money in the “dodge” column.

Costumes ranged from an elephant onesie to a captain’s suit at the Ithaca Chill Challenge. (Devon Magliozzi/Ithaca Voice)
Costumes ranged from an elephant onesie to a captain’s suit at the Ithaca Chill Challenge. (Devon Magliozzi/Ithaca Voice)

For the 30 participants doomed to dip, Tuesday was a mercifully mild day. At 1 p.m. the National Weather Service clocked Ithaca at about 35 degrees – a full 30 degrees warmer than 2018. Even so, the water temperature was a chilly 41 degrees and the wind was gusting on the lake’s shore. Swimmers shrieked as they ran into the water, fetched a balloon from a floating buoy line, and hurried back to dry land.

Some boldly bared their beach bods in speedos and tube tops, while others opted for the full coverage of animal onesies or Santa suits. A troupe of skeletons took home the prize for most creative costume before emerging from the water with smears of face paint and glitter, and a contingent from St. Catherine of Siena sported t-shirts with the slogan, “I’d rather be a wet water walker than a dry boat rider.”

Team “Ithaca Safety League” took home a prize for their skeleton costumes. (Devon Magliozzi/Ithaca Voice)
Team “Ithaca Safety League” took home a prize for their skeleton costumes. (Devon Magliozzi/Ithaca Voice)

Ithaca Police Chief Pete Tyler stayed in the lake long enough to shake hands with each of the divers stationed in the water for dippers’ safety. Joe Miller, who entered the water in a captain’s suit, necessitated the only rescue of the day: a diver donned an oxygen tank to find Miller’s sunken spectacles.

Ithaca Police Chief Pete Tyler shook hands with rescue divers before returning to shore. (Devon Magliozzi/Ithaca Voice)

Once swimmers had warmed up around the beach bonfires and regrouped inside the Yacht Club, emcee Roy Murdough handed out prizes for the fundraisers who led the way toward the event’s goal. John Webster led individual participants, bringing in almost $3,500. Team “when I dip, you dip, we dip,” comprised of Kaki and Neal Johnston, led group fundraising efforts with more than $5,000 raised.

Kaki and Neal Johnston took home prizes for their costumes and fundraising. (Devon Magliozzi/Ithaca Voice)

Kaki Johnston, who was on the event’s planning committee, said it was her third year participating but first year dipping.

“ICR is such an important feature in this community,” she said. While she looked a bit cold as her husband splashed her, she said the dip “is the best way to start the new year.”

For ICR, which doesn’t receive government funding, the event provided a financial boost that will help maintain services throughout the year.

“It was an overwhelming success,” Miller said. Thanking participants and donors, she said, “It’s truly a community event. It takes all of us to make it happen.”

Devon Magliozzi is a reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at or 607-391-0328.