Frigid fanatics take the Polar Plunge

February 23, 2010

By Tim Pfarr

Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love near-hypothermia

Does jumping into brutally cold water sound like fun to you? On a hot summer day, it may sound like a good idea, but what about in the dead of winter? If this painfully cold combination sounds appealing, you may consider taking a polar bear plunge.

Yes, polar bear plunges are what you may expect: events where masses of people run and dive into frigid water when the weather is at its coldest. So, do you need to be completely out of your mind to participate? Not necessarily.

Polar bear plunges are held all across the country, and they are usually held as fundraising efforts. In Washington, there is a Polar Plunge series that benefits Special Olympics Washington.

The 2010 series stops at six cities, and it kicked off New Year’s Day in Lake Sammamish at Redmond’s Idylwood Park. After the kickoff, the Polar Plunge series also made stops at Alki Beach in Seattle and Columbia Park in Kennewick.

The series also stopped at Sarg Hubbard Park in Yakima Feb. 13, Walla Walla Point Park in Wenatchee Feb. 20 and Medical Lake Waterfront Park in Medical Lake Feb. 26. Visit Special Olympics Washington’s Web site for more information on upcoming plunges.

It seemed covering the series’ kickoff would make for a chillingly good article. However, since the event was in Redmond, the story needed an Issaquah connection, which meant finding Issaquah residents who were taking the plunge. This turned out to be quite difficult during the holiday season, and I was forced to resort to my plan B: take the plunge myself.

New Year’s Day quickly rolled around, and with no word from Issaquah residents, I suited up in my tropical-looking board shorts, grabbed a change of clothes and headed to the lake.

The actual plunge was preceded by drinking hot beverages, eating tiny sandwiches donated by Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches and the presentation of the “best costume” award, as some individuals came to the plunge dressed in insane outfits. There was even one man dressed as a voluptuous hula girl.

Then, the moment came. All of the plungers lined up on the shore, and after a short countdown, we all took to the water. Knowing the process would be analogous to ripping off a Band-Aid, I ran as fast as I could until I reached knee-deep water, and then I performed a triumphant belly flop.

The water temperature was somewhere near 45 degrees, and the experience of diving in felt like getting hit by a brick wall. Every muscle seemed to contract as if each was screaming out in shock, and I hurried to the shore as soon as I was back on my feet. Total elapsed time in water: about 10 seconds. Extremities left with feeling: none.

Next came the process of recovery. Somehow, my knee was bleeding. There was goose poop stuck to the bottom of my numb feet. I was shivering uncontrollably.

What proved to be particularly tricky was fitting my shoes on my numb feet with hands that were virtually too cold to function.

However, after putting on a dry sweatshirt, warming up didn’t take long, and knowing I had contributed to a good cause by donating to Washington Special Olympics to participate helped keep the warm feeling going inside.

Ironically, before taking the plunge, I got acquainted with several Issaquah residents who were participating: Ben and Keith Nussbaum, both 13, and Connor Broughton and Henry Dees, both 12. The boys had heard about the plunge and decided to make a splash themselves.

The cold water didn’t seem to faze them as much as it did me, thus proving their toughness. In fact, Ben, Keith and Connor are members of the Issaquah Swim Team, and they vowed to return next year with more of their teammates. If it weren’t for the charitable aspect of the event, I would have no choice but to conclude these boys are a little bit nuts.

Event organizers declared the event a success, and they thanked participants for their pledges, of which the minimum was $50. In total, the New Year’s Day plunge raised more than $10,000, and event organizer Lt. Tim Gately, of the Redmond Police Department, said the department plans to host the plunge at the same time and place next year.

In fact, Gately and several of his fellow officers even took the plunge … in uniform.

“It stings the lungs at first, but then it’s kind of refreshing,” Gately said.

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