Jan. 1, 1962: If you’re making a list of the toughest dudes in Pittsburgh history, Gus Brickner certainly has to be near the top. Brickner was a steelworker from Charleroi who gained fame as an endurance swimmer unaffected by cold weather. He’s probably best known for his annual New Year’s Day plunge into the Monongahela River, a tradition continued by our city’s Polar Bear Club.
But Brickner’s most amazing feat occurred Jan. 24, 1963. On that day, as temperatures dipped to 18 degrees below zero, Brickner swam the width of the Monongahela River at Dunlevy. A towboat ahead of him smashed a path through ice 10 inches thick. “My whole body was encased in ice as soon as I got out of the water,” Brickner told a reporter.
The effort set a cold-weather swimming record that will stand forever. Guinness closed the category for safety reasons after several people died trying to surpass Brickner.
Brickner twice attempted to swim the English Channel. In 1957, he was pulled from the water 4 1/2 miles from his goal. He came closer in 1960, but lost consciousness 400 yards from shore. The swim took 18 hours. He lost 18 pounds.
Brickner swam every day except Christmas. By 1985, he had logged more than 38,000 miles. After tacking on 500 more, he stopped counting. That was in 1986. Brickner was 75 years old. He kept swimming for pleasure until his death at age 79 in 1991.