Freezin’ for a Reason

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Camp Tapawingo 1961. Julie is sitting on far left, I am third on the left, and Betsy is next to me on left.

I had always been intrigued by stories and pictures of polar plunges, where hundreds of smiling people clad in only bathing suits head into a body of water in the middle of the winter. Participants say they are having fun. I never understood their enthusiasm until I found myself diving into Lake George, water temperature around 50 degrees, on a brisk November day. Crazy? Yes! Glad I did it? Double yes. Because I was ‘freezin’ for a reason. I was raising money for Special Olympics Capital District.

Special Olympics is the world’s largest sports organization for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. The Special Olympics Capital District Region provides year-round training and competitions to more than sixteen hundred athletes from twelve counties in fourteen different sports. For a number of years, Larry and I were involved as Saratoga County Special Olympics track and field and bowling coaches.

We also participated in Special Olympic fundraisers. One of the most popular and well known in the Capital District is the Polar Plunge, where hundreds of people plunge into Lake George on the third Saturday of November.

In a moment of insanity, I had signed up and participated in the plunge in 2011. Larry had a list of reasons why it was not going to be a joint effort: He needed to be on the shore to hold my bathrobe and towel. He needed to take pictures. He needed to drive me home as I would be too cold to handle the wheel. He didn’t want to take the spotlight away from “my” event. Maybe he had more common sense than the rest of us, or maybe he just didn’t know how to have fun. Within minutes of coming out of the water that first time, however, I swore to anyone with ear shot that I would never do it again. Our schedule in 2012 prevented repeat plunge, and I was thinking of finding another excuse for 2013 until……

In a second moment of insanity, I committed to participate in the 2013 event. I rejoined Freezin’ Friends, a team of plungers headed by Joni, whose son Nick participated in several Special Olympic events, including our track and field program. It was time for me to again raise money to support athletes like Nick

In the middle of September, I began a fundraising blitz, mostly through emails and Facebook. The response was overwhelming. I had pledges from family and friends across the country and even from England. Most pledged on line, but many others handed me checks or cash, commenting “Better you than me!” and “Boy, you are brave!” By the day of the plunge, our team had raised close to $5000, and the region total was approaching $77,000.

By this time, you would think that I would be mentally and physically ready to dive back into Lake George. I hadn’t died the first time; my heart had held out; I didn’t even catch a cold. But in the days leading up to the plunge, I had nightmares about going into a freezing lake. In addition, this year I was going to top what I had started in 2011. In my first year, most of my supporters congratulated me and praised my bravery for plunging up to my neck. However, a few people kiddingly questioned as if I had ever gone in the lake, as my hair was still dry and the water droplets on my body didn’t show well on the photos. This time, I was going to make sure that pictures showed a soaked bathing suit and a wet head so that no one would doubt my commitment.

We were fortunate with the weather. The morning of the plunge was a beautiful, sunny, calm day, with air temperatures in the fifties. Larry and I stopped at the registration desk and then headed down to Shepard’s Park Beach. Over my bathing suit, I had flannel pants, a thermal shirt, my Polar Plunge sweatshirt, and a warm terry bathrobe. Under my water shoes were heavy woolen socks. I found Joni in her traditional Dr. Seuss hat she had worn for each of the seven plunges in which she previously participated. I recognized most of my teammates from 2011, a mix of Neil’s family, friends, and Special Olympics coaches. In addition, a large group of students from Schuylerville High School had signed up for the fundraiser to support Nick their classmate. Joni provided all thirty members of the team with a choice of colors in Santa hats.

Several other teams of plungers were also on the beach, including Max’s Buddies, Freeze Duchenne, Brian’s Bashers, and the Siena men’s baseball team. We spent the next couple of hours munching on bagels, sipping hot coffee, taking pictures, and connecting with members of our team and the other plungers. Several were in costume: capes, polar bear hats, boas, and, in the case of one man, a skimpy beige bikini bathing suit. “My Miley Cyrus look,” he explained.

At ten minutes before noon, all the plungers stripped down to their bathing suits. Shivering despite the warm sun, we lined up to wait for the signal to hit the water. At exactly twelve noon, led by three athletes holding the Special Olympics torch, over five hundred and fifty crazies—including me— streamed into Lake George.

As my ankles hit the water, I faced my first obstacle. As our team was near the end of the line, we were going into the lake when the members of the Siena men’s baseball team were coming out. Fast. Blindly, with no concern for who was in their way. I darted through hurling bodies until I found a clear spot in the water, took a deep breath, and dove in, orange Santa hat and all.

OH MY GOD! Why didn’t I remember it was this cold! I immediately thought of those poor people on the Titanic. I had visions of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jack clinging onto the edge of the makeshift raft that held Kate Winslet’s Rose. I could not get out of the water fast enough. I ran onto the sand, hair and body dripping, searching desperately for Larry and, more importantly, my bathrobe and towel. As soon as I found him, I asked, “Did you get a picture?” Larry said yes, but I must have had ice in my ears. I didn’t hear him and headed back into the water for a second totally unnecessary photo opportunity.

I have to say that the second plunge that day wasn’t as bad as the first time. Maybe the sun had warmed my body. Or I was so numb I couldn’t tell the difference. Larry took a couple of more pictures, and I was finally able to head for the women’s warming tent, where I quickly changed into dry clothes. We drove back to Clifton Park with the car’s heater going full blast.

Later that afternoon, Larry and I talked about the plunge over large bowls of steaming chicken and rice noodle soup at a local Chinese restaurant. “Next year, I need to wear a different bathing suit and a pair of shorts as those pictures I posted on Facebook are just too embarrassing,” I said. “And maybe if I start fundraising earlier, I can raise more money.”

Larry nodded, “Let’s just see what happens with our schedule next year.”

I was not able to plunge in 2014, and by 2015, we had moved to Florida. Joni emailed me in October to ask kiddingly if I would like to come up north to participate, but I declined. Not surprisingly, there are no polar plunges in Central Florida. Maybe an alligator wrestling fundraising event? We’ll have to wait and see.

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