Polar plunging for Special Olympics Michigan, and all the unicorns in the world
At noon it still hasn't sunk in. I'm in full denial, sitting on my couch in pajama pants and slippers, sipping fancy coffee, eating toast and looking for something decent to stream on NetFlix. I'm in such denial that I lied in the previous sentence. I'm actually drinking cheap Meijer coffee, eating a Cafe Steamer frozen entree (Kung Pao Chicken) and playing video games. Who wants to trade places now?
Majestic unicorn author | photo by Rachel Smith
In less than two hours, I'll be standing at the edge of a hole cut into a frozen pond with 200 people staring at me, some of them shirtless. I can hear the wind whipping outside my apartment. I didn't wear a coat all week (52 degrees on Friday!), but the internet tells me it's 31 degrees outside and feels like 20 with wind gusts of 16-27 mph. A big storm is on the way with snow and winter horror, but it's much too late to back out.
With registration in less than an hour, I dress in my unicorn costume. Long pink socks, pink short shorts, a white T-shirt with sharpie abs and rainbow colored chest hair and the topper, a homemade unicorn hat-head (good crafting Rachel Smith!) — a frightening costume leaving me with pasty white bare arms and legs.
Rachel agrees to be my emergency contact and we drive to the University of Michigan Golf Course. The clubhouse and the area outside the pond are packed with a mix of folks bundled in puffy jackets and true participants with costumes and towels. The warm weather melted portions of the ice on the pond making it unsafe for plunging, so the organizers move to plan B, filling a giant inflatable pool with 400 pounds of ice. I'm bummed that I won't be able to jump in the pond, but then again, the chances of getting particles of goose poop in my inner ear just went down 90 percent.
We line up and wait our turn to plunge. I stand with cowboys, cowgirls, baseball players, hillbillies and a pair of 6 year olds. Most of us stand barefoot on the cold concrete. The waiting is the worst. One by one, plungers are introduced by wireless microphone then climb a six-foot ladder and flop into the big blue pool. No cannonballs or diving allowed — most plungers jump feet first, then tuck under water. A few do back or belly flops. The crowd jeers one young girl who refuses to dunk her head.
It's my turn. Waiting in line for 20 minutes, I've noticed a few plungers trying to clamber over the side of the inflatable pool after their jumps rather than exit via the ladder. It's the cold attacking their brains, turning them to primal beasts for whom the only thing that matters is survival, not the rules of polar plunging. I vow I won't succumb to cold madness and focus on one thing — don’t fall off the ladder. I'm already cold from standing in socks on the concrete for 30 minutes, so a pool of cold water holds no fear for me. Mounting the crest of the ladder, I took one step on the other side, looked down and let myself fall face forward. Belly flop. Rachel's description is probably the most accurate:
"For a second you actually took the shape of a majestic unicorn leaping into a glacier lake."
We're in love.
I hit the water, pop up and turn around. I don't notice the cold until I touch the ladder. My chest contracts, and it's hard to breathe, but I manage to climb up the ladder and descend without grabbing a fireman's neck or head for balance. I walk briskly to a shower tent nearby spewing hot water out of six shower heads. The water burns my cold skin.
I wasn't cold for long. By the time I changed clothes and ate some Buffalo Wild Wings (the polar plunge had the best post-activity food of any event I've been a part of in 2011), I was 100 percent.
A few of my fellow plungers shared their experiences. Billy Bob (actually Nick King) of Hillbilly Heaven plunged dressed like a white trash super hero raising money on behalf of the special education center TLC (The Lincoln Center) in Wyandotte.
"It was a horrendous experience," he half joked. "Standing in line was the worst. It was wretched."
At the end of the daym around 150 participants took the plunge, raising around $25,000 for Special Olympics Michigan. Most importantly, almost everyone had a good time and my heart didn't stop.
Better luck next time, AnnArbor.com!