Polar Plunge raises more than $400K for Special Olympics

thanlon@adn.comDecember 21, 2013 

What to do with a 25-foot-wide, 5-foot-deep hole cut into an icy Anchorage lake?

Some say, jump in.

That's what about 1,100 people did Saturday at the fifth annual Polar Plunge at Goose Lake -- raising more than $400,000 for Special Olympics Alaska.

During the winter solstice's five hours or so of daylight, some 250 teams took the plunge dressed in costumes ranging from snowmen to superheroes and hippies to hula dancers.

"And what do Alaskans do on the shortest day of the year?" said Jim Balamaci, president of Special Olympics Alaska. "They jump into the coldest water."

There were the "Groovy Gastro Girls" from local gastroenterology offices, the "Furloughed Fedcicles" from the FBI and the "Flannel Panel" from Humpy's Great Alaskan Alehouse.

Some belly-flopped, a few flipped, but most just took the leap feet first into the 34-degree water before paddling to the ladders and jogging, cocooned in beach towels, to the nearby hot-tub tent.

"Which one's the warmest?" asked Jessica Mailloux, a manager at Humpy's, once she reached the three tubs.

She said the icy lake took away both her breath and her memory of how to swim -- like a kid again, lost in the water.

To assist the frozen out of the lake were Anchorage firefighters, like Greg Wahlman, standing in the water and dressed in dry suits, hats and gloves. They rotated every 30 to 60 minutes, or whenever they became too numb.

"It's the only time you get to hang out in a freezing cold lake," Wahlman said.

After each team jumped, he splashed hot water from a container onto his face and poured it over his hands.

Temperatures Saturday hovered around 28 degrees.

Couple Che Coleman and Margie Trudeau left 75-degree Tallahassee, Fla., for Anchorage on a Friday airplane, just in time to plunge holding hands in matching Superman- and Superwoman-inspired swimsuits.

"We're adventure seekers," Coleman said. "We go for adventures and thrills, wherever we can find stuff."

He ranked the Polar Plunge second after running with the bulls in Spain.

The plunges aren't just in Alaska; they happen all over the country to raise money for the Special Olympics. But in Anchorage, the jump began in 1998 as a demonstration at an international law enforcement conference, Balamaci said. It didn't become a public event until 2008.

To plunge, you must raise at least $100, which goes toward Special Olympic athletes, coach certifications and hosting the state games.

"It really is the coolest thing you can do," Balamaci said about jumping. "It's about people giving back. It's about knowing what our athletes face, a day-to-day battle. It's that discomfort for a few seconds and it's about having fun."

Reach Tegan Hanlon at thanlon@adn.com or 257-4589.


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