By Wade Coggeshall
True, the sun was shining Saturday. But that didn’t make it a good day for outdoor swimming.
Yet hundreds of people donned bathing suits and various other outfits to shun subfreezing temperatures and run into the frigid waters of Eagle Creek Reservoir that day.
For a good cause, of course. They participated in Special Olympics Indiana’s annual Polar Plunge. There are 12 of these conducted every weekend in February around the state. The one at Eagle Creek, this being the 14th, is the last and the largest.
DJs from RadioNOW emceed the event, which included free buzzcuts to add to the chill factor and a costume contest. Various teams came dressed as superheroes, camouflaged soldiers, and prom attendees. The winning team included Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, Union and Confederate soldiers, and even an Oscar statue to symbolize the Academy Award nominations for the film “Lincoln.”
Michael Furnish, Special Olympics Indiana president and CEO, says the Polar Plunge began taking on a life of its own a few years ago.
“There are people now who, I think, must plan their whole winter around being here,” he said. “They dress in ridiculous costumes, raise ridiculous amounts of money, and show up for two or three hours here. That changes everything for us.”
Dermot Nolan has participated in the Polar Plunge for five years now. He’s a mentor for Brownsburg High School’s FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition in Science and Technology) robotics team 3176. His daughter got him involved when the team started because he’s an engineer. He hasn’t looked back.
“I haven’t had this much fun since I learned to ride a bicycle,” Nolan said of FIRST.
His first year with the team, he was in the Polar Plunge with the Knights of Columbus.
“I decided the following year I could get the students to participate,” Nolan said. “It’s like a coming of age for teen-agers now — ‘have you plunged yet? You’ve got to do it next year.’”
BHS Robotics has grown from 14 students the first year to 34 now.
Of those, 18 took the plunge on Saturday. This was the first year no mentors or teachers plunged with them. They still raised more than $2,100 for the Special Olympics.
“For just a student effort, that’s outstanding,” Nolan said. “I’m proud of them.”
There is something inherently crazy about swimming in an outdoor body of water during winter, even if it’s for a good cause. Nolan admits that in the days leading up to his first plunge he questioned why he was doing it, what he was putting his family through. Then, just before running into the water, “To see a Special Olympic athlete come through carrying an Olympic flame and plunge before you, it’s inspirational.”
Fortunately for BHS Robotics, many of whom were rookie plungers this year, they didn’t have much time to think about the swim. They finished building their robot last week for competition, starting with regionals in March at Purdue University. They’ve made it to the world championships twice in four years. That alone requires fundraising.
Many area engineering firms — including Roark Fabrication, Indy Performance Composites, and Rolls Royce — sponsor the team.
So for them, the Polar Plunge isn’t just some team-bonding event.
“This is us giving back to the community for what they’ve done for us,” said Chris Noble, BHS Robotics’ head mentor, who added they also participate in Special Olympics Indiana’s annual Plane Pull in the summer.
Furnish compares taking the plunge to being in the Special Olympics. Few people embrace a disability as something good. So when you have a relative with an intellectual disability, it’s common to lower your expectations and assume they won’t accomplish as much as the average person.
But then you have the Special Olympics. That person is now competing in sports, winning awards they never thought they would, and simply enjoying life more.
“It’s kind of the same thing here,” Furnish said of the Polar Plunge. “You stand on the beach, look out, and think ‘there’s no way I can do this.’ But then you do and later brag about it to anyone who will listen.”
Some folks do it once and decide never again.
“But for a remarkable number of people, they come back every year and regard it as a sort of rite of passage,” Furnish said.
They’re the ones who’ve made the Polar Plunge a rousing success. More than 2,100 people had already participated statewide going into the Eagle Creek event. Special Olympics Indiana’s goal was to raise $400,000 this year. With Saturday’s attendance, they expect to easily surpass that and maybe even reach $450,000.
Both the dollar amount and number of participants are records. It’s a big deal for the program, which is a United Way agency serving more than 11,000 athletes across Indiana.
“We don’t get government money and don’t have any guaranteed sources of revenue,” Furnish said. “To start out a year where we have this much generosity makes it possible for us to dream about what we’re going to do for the rest of the year.”
For more information on Special Olympics Indiana, call 328-2000 or visit the website at soindiana.org.