'Polar Plunging' with Special Olympians at the Big House is a freezing good time
Courtney Sacco | AnnArbor.com
The worst part of the Polar Plunge is definitely the feet.
As soon as you take your shoes off you’re hit by the sudden feeling that you may never see all 10 of your toes in the same place again.
The best part is the faces of the Special Olympics athletes and their families participating in the event.
Seeing their enthusiasm and listening to stories of what athletics means to them makes you realize why people from ages 5 to 59 dress up in crazy costumes and jump into ice cold pools of water in the middle of winter.
I met some interesting characters on my way in:
Casey Hutson, a Special Olympics athlete and student at Pioneer High school, was joined by a group of staff and students from the high school.
“It’s really a great program because athletics means so much to him,” special education teacher Cassandra Brower said.
“The rest of the students here are all peers, and they help us and participate in a program called ‘unified sports,’ where general education and special education students play sports together on the same teams.”
Just more than 300 “plungers” dived into pools of water set up on the field of Michigan Stadium Saturday morning. Temperatures stood in the high 20s, but it felt significantly lower thanks to a brisk wind blowing through the tunnel and around the stadium.
The participants raised more than $130,000 according to a preliminary counting announced at the awards ceremony after the event. Special Olympics director of marketing Amie Dugan said this was one of the most unique plunges she had ever seen.
“We do hundreds of Special Olympics Polar Plunges every year in the United States alone,” she said.
“But this one was incredible. To have the event in one of the top stadiums in the country and with the participation of the athletics department it was just great. Having a partner like this that really is committed to helping every step of the way makes all the difference.”
Paul Teboe tells me why he and his Saline marital arts group are plunging:
When I first agreed to plunge, I had only heard of the event in passing and did not realize the enormity of what I had gotten myself into.
The whole experience was surreal — hundreds of people gathered at the Big House wearing the craziest collection of costumes you’ve seen since the last Harlem Shake video you watched. There was a group of Spartan warriors, various Michigan and high school sports teams, and an extremely convincing pair of Ghostbusters. I felt positively underdressed in my American flag swimsuit and “Action Hero” cape.
The outfits ranged from punny — the group of Pioneer students and staff all wore plungers on their heads — to bizarre, with one man who wore a straightjacket and boxers that had a fake naked tush attached to the back.
Some jumpers had friends or family members who were Special Olympics participants, others just thought it sounded like fun and wanted to support a good cause.
“When I signed up, I thought ‘why not make fun of myself if something positive comes out of it?’” top fundraiser Michael Spath said before he jumped in.
“ But the closer it gets to the big day you get a bit less excited about it when you realize what you’re actually going to do. But now I’m taking courage from everyone else here. We’re all just feeding off of each other.”
Some plungers were more graceful than others:
The biggest rounds of applause during the event came for the Special Olympics athletes, but Lloyd Carr and Brady Hoke came in a close second. Both coaches gave the plungers a pep talk and then acted as “judges” in the event.
“The Special Olympics’ athlete’s oath is, ‘let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt,’” Carr said.
“ Today, not all of you will be able to win, but you will all need to be brave in the attempt!”
The Special Olympics does not receive government funding and relies on individual donations and fundraising events like the Polar Plunge to support its activities. All Special Olympics events are 100 percent free to athletes and their families, Dugan said.
“Sports can be our great unifier and our great divider,” Spath said.
“I’m not personally touched by the event, but whenever I see it you just can’t escape how awesome it is to watch people achieve, just have an amazing time and compete.”
The great unifier on this day was that we were all exposed to the elements and about to jump into a pool of water. There were volunteers, who seemed a little too cheerful, adding bags of ice to the water throughout the event in case our body heat inadvertently raised the temperature to anywhere near bearable.
I can't believe they did this to us:
“It was a great experience. Everyone should do it next year,” Michigan senior Liz Sherzer said. “But bring lots of fuzzy warm socks.”
Truer words may never have been spoken.
You can watch what the plunge looked like from my point of view (the high pitched squeals of freezing are all me):
Ben Freed covers business for AnnArbor.com. You can sign up here to receive Business Review updates every week. Reach out to Ben at 734-623-2528 or email him at email@example.com. Follow him on twitter @BFreedinA2