People took part in the Special Olympics Wisconsin Polar Plunge fundraiser Feb. 10, 2013 at Muskego County Park in Muskego.

People took part in the Special Olympics Wisconsin Polar Plunge fundraiser Feb. 10, 2013 at Muskego County Park in Muskego. Photo By Mark Hoffman

Take the icy plunge for Special Olympics

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Has this winter been cold enough for you?

If you answered no, you're crazy, and the Special Olympics wants you for its annual Polar Plunge events.

I'm a proud member of the crazy crowd. Two years ago I joined the brave souls who take an icy dip into Lake Michigan to raise money for the Special Olympics.

Dubbed "Freezin' for a Reason," the first Special Olympics plunge in Wisconsin was held in 1999. Over the last 15 years, more than 10,000 plungers have raised more than $14 million for Special Olympics athletes. Last year, 10,000 people raised more than $1.8 million at 12 venues across the state.

More than 500 people charged into Lake Michigan at Milwaukee's McKinley marina during last year's plunge. Kelly Lang, regional director of development for the greater Milwaukee area, expects as many, if not more, plungers to take part in the Milwaukee event this year, scheduled for Feb. 15.

Altruism aside, Lang said the event's crazy nature is what draws a lot of participants.

"The bucket list is really in right now," Lang said. "People love thinking about crazy things that they can do, and this is good one because it's for a good cause and it's something crazy all at the same time.

"And people are looking for things to do in winter," she said. "They're looking for things to just get out of their house."

There's nothing like a dunk in ice-cold water to cure cabin fever, I suppose.

The bucket list was part of my reasoning for doing the plunge. But it also felt good to know that one of my extreme escapades wasn't just for fun.

Bob Sliwinski, a Greendale native who currently lives in Milwaukee, also first got involved because of the crazy factor. "Who doesn't want to jump into cold water?" he said.

But Sliwinski's motives have changed in recent years. Now a math teacher at St. Francis High School, Sliwinski organizes a group of students and faculty members to take the plunge together. The group competes against other area schools to see who can raise the most money.

"Being a teacher, it's something bigger than what it is, just jumping into cold water," he said. "To see other young adults do this, to raise $75, for a kid that's a lot of money."

Last year 22 St. Francis students raised about $1,900 for the Special Olympics, Sliwinski said. More than that have already signed up for this year's plunge in what has become a yearly tradition for the school, he said.

What to expect: Whenever I tell people about the plunge, the first obvious question they ask is, "Weren't you freezing?"

Um, yes, I'm not the Human Torch. But the hardest part of the plunge is the wait. With the air colder than the water, our short, five-minute wait to plunge was much tougher than the 30-second run into Lake Michigan. I was numb long before I put a toe in the water. Dare I say it was a relief to finally run in?

Milwaukee's plunge is more of a run — you scurry down a concrete boat ramp, silently praying you don't slip in front of the gaggle of bundled-up observers. A quick dunk (all the way!) in front of wading fire and emergency personnel and you're out and into the warming tent, chattering teeth and hands scrambling to put on warm, dry clothes.

Aside from warming tents, the event features a concession area with food, beer and soda, and this year a performance by Milwaukee country trio the WhiskeyBelles, Lang said.

Even if the plunge is canceled — if the air temperature reaches minus 4 or the windchill is minus 10 — the show will go on, according to Lange. "We still have what we call a pinky plunge," she said, which allows plungers to dip a hand in kiddie pools. Participants can also still enjoy the band and concessions.

How to get involved: While you can plunge on your own, it's more fun with a group. Come up with a name and register online. Some teams wear wacky costumes when jumping. I thought a bathing suit in March was wacky enough when I did it, but Sliwinski said his group wore Hawaiian-themed outfits last year.

Each plunger is required to raise $75, which gets you a long-sleeved T-shirt. Additional prizes for raising money include a towel ($175), sweatshirt ($350), jacket ($600) and more.

If you still want to get involved but prefer not to charge into a frozen abyss, there's the Too Chicken to Plunge option: Raise money and earn a "I was too chicken to plunge" shirt in addition to the other plunge prizes.

Other plunges: Kenosha, Feb. 8; Madison, Feb. 8; Menomonie, Feb. 8; Wisconsin Rapids, Feb. 8; Muskego, Feb. 9; Oshkosh, Feb. 14-15; Whitewater, Feb. 15; Wausau, Feb. 21-22; Green Bay, Feb. 22; Eau Claire, Feb. 23; LaCrosse, March 1.

More information: The Milwaukee Polar Plunge at McKinley Marina, 1750 North Lincoln Memorial Drive, is scheduled for Feb. 15. Teams will jump from 12 to 1:30 p.m., with concessions available from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and live music from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

For more details and to register for a plunge, see specialolympicswisconsin.org.

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