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Greasy pole champions compete for the glory

Derek Hopkins led a chant as his fellow greasy pole walkers marched through the streets on Sunday en route to the event at Pavilion Beach that traditionally marks the end of the five-day St. Peter’s Fiesta in Gloucester. Hopkins was this year’s pole-walking champion.
Derek Hopkins led a chant as his fellow greasy pole walkers marched through the streets on Sunday en route to the event at Pavilion Beach that traditionally marks the end of the five-day St. Peter’s Fiesta in Gloucester. Hopkins was this year’s pole-walking champion.(Erin Clark for The Boston Globe)

GLOUCESTER — One by one they scampered across the greased pole, slipping, sliding, landing with a thud, and falling into the water, to the delight of the crowd.

More than a thousand spectators cheered from the beach Sunday afternoon in Gloucester, where this year’s greasy pole contest — perhaps the city’s most hotly anticipated sporting event of the year — was underway, marking the end of the five-day St. Peter’s Fiesta.

Thirty-five men, all past greasy pole champions or delegates of former champions, endured bruises and bumps to their backs, legs, and egos, all in pursuit of the Italian flag waiting at the end of the muck and grease — and the glory that goes with it.

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After a practice round, 18-year-old Derek Hopkins scurried through mounds of vegetable oil and Crisco, arms flailing, and snatched the flag with apparent ease. He paused for a moment with his hands upraised as the crowd roared in celebration, then flopped into the water below.

Hopkins, who also won Friday’s and Saturday’s greasy pole contests, was carried triumphantly from the shore by his comrades. He will get his name added to a shrine, hoist a trophy, and become the newest hero of the city.

“Three days in a row! Three days in a row! He’s a living legend now in Gloucester,” screamed Carol Pallazolla, one of the many fans watching from the beach.

Hopkins grabbed the flag during the greasy pole walk.
Hopkins grabbed the flag during the greasy pole walk.(Erin Clark for The Boston Globe)

Gloucester’s greasy pole contest, which began in 1931, is no small affair. As the highlight of the fiesta, which celebrates the town’s Sicilian heritage, Catholic faith, and history of fishing, it draws crowds from all over. And the walkers — those daring (or drunk) enough to traverse the greasy pole — are the celebrities.

“To win it once, it’s just an unbelievable feeling,” said Pete Frontiero, a nine-time greasy pole champion. “All I wanted to do was make my family proud. It’s all about family pride and tradition.”

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Frontiero is retired now, but that didn’t stop the walkers from gathering in his backyard in the pouring rain hours before the contest to drink, dance, and swap stories of hard-won glory achieved on the pole. The alcohol helps “drown the butterflies” when standing in front of the pole, Frontiero said.

Then, dressed in flamboyant medieval, animal, and superhero costumes, and toting Italian flags, the carousers marched through the city’s streets and bars, hyping up the crowd before sailing out to the pole, erected hundreds of yards off the beach.

“Viva San Pietro!” they chanted throughout the celebration — “Long live St. Peter!”

Their faith in the patron saint of fishermen was rewarded; the rain clouds that threatened to postpone the contest parted, and the sun peeked through as the men maneuvered across the slippery pole.

“They have bragging rights for the rest of their life,” said Robyn McNair, who was wearing an enormous hat displaying a replica of St. Peter’s shrine while watching from the beach. Her sister Amy Clayton’s hat depicted the greasy pole contest.

They said they’ve been coming to the fiesta for their entire lives.

“It is a real tight community. It’s so special,” McNair said. “It’s about getting your family back together, reuniting.”

One of the competitors slipped mid-walk.
One of the competitors slipped mid-walk.(Erin Clark for The Boston Globe)

Kellen Browning can be reached at kellen.browning@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @kellen_browning.