I have never taken the polar plunge. This annual event focused on raising money for the Special Olympics of Wisconsin requires participants to raise a minimum of $75 for the chance to jump into the freezing waters of a lake at the peak of winter. Now, I will be the first to admit the concept is basically crazy. Anyone who sees a “reward” in the idea of braving below freezing temperatures to dive into water that is exposed only because someone removed a foot and a half of ice above it could easily be defined as out of their mind. However, everyone I knew that had participated in the polar plunge insisted it was a great time. When the topic would come up they would talk about the success they had raising money for a good cause, the fun they had dressing up in ridiculous costumes the day of the event, and the unique feeling of hopping into a frozen body of water. “Freezin’ for a reason!” they would consistently chime as they told their stories and insisted I give the polar plunge a try. In response, I would consistently shake my head at the lunacy of the idea and tell myself the polar plunge was one event I would never try.
Of course, that was well before I came up with the idea of trying something I had never done every day for a year. After the start of my “I have never...” journey I assessed life experiences I had yet to attain, which included many of the things I swore I would never try. Near the top of that list was the ridiculous idea of participating in the polar plunge. While I knew I would feel great raising money for a good cause, the idea of jumping into a frozen lake was still so outlandish I struggled to wrap my head around it. I seriously doubted whether I would have the courage to follow through with the experience even if I committed to making part of my “I have never...” year. Then it seemed too absurd and foolish. I just couldn’t imagine subjecting myself to that kind of cold.
|Let's do this.|
Despite that perspective, the course of my “I have never...” year began taking me to many experiences I never thought I would obtain, and as the months past I found my eyes opening to new possibilities for life experiences. In time, I discovered a sense of fortitude that was previously unfamiliar and a hunger that drove me to set aside my hesitation and unease for the sake of new experiences. By the time my “I have never...” year met autumn that shift caused me to look at the polar plunge through a different lens. Although I still thought it was an unnecessarily crazy activity, the idea of participating in the event no longer seemed so harsh. Considering everything I had done up that point hopping into a frozen lake for a few seconds in the name of a good cause seemed easy. As a result, I signed up for the event and prepared for an experience I wouldn’t soon forget.
|The music tent|
In the following months I somehow managed to convince a series of my co-workers, Shelley, Keeth, Micah, Sunee, and Mirela to join me on my first experience with the polar plunge. When the event finally arrived our team of six people had raised nearly $700 and had rallied around the idea of jumping into a freezing body of water. We were all reluctant to do it, but we were determined to make it happen. In turn, we met up this morning and made the trip to Willow Island at the nearby Alliant Energy Center grounds to follow through on our intentions to participate in the polar plunge.
When we arrived at the event we exited our vehicle with our costumes in hand and were greeted by a stinging nine degree air. As one of the first groups slated to take the plunge this morning, we hurriedly found our way to the heart of the event grounds. Amid the frozen terrain surrounding the small body of water that would serve as our plunging location three massive white tents rose from the ground, beckoning us to escape the cold. Following a brief team meeting and warm up session in the polar plunge live music tent, we scurried over to our respective changing tents and prepared for our jump.
|Why am I doing this?|
|A pre-plunge photo op|
|The full plunge team!|
While several of our team members decided not to do anything too over the top for their plunging attire, our reconvening beneath the heaters outside the changing tent revealed the hodgepodge of themes in our group. With Mirela sporting a penguin costume, Sunee in a tutu, Micah blanketed in the American flag, and me dressed in a bedazzled Richard Simmons costume, we looked like a group preparing for a b-rate talent show. Our collective appearance provided a few laughs as we huddled in the cold and found our place in the plunge line. With a few dozen people scheduled to jump before we received our chance, we did our best to stay warm in the frigid air as we slowly progressed toward the front of the line. With each call of “3, 2, 1... Plunge!” we inched closer to the front of the line until nothing remained between us and the plunge location. Beneath the last heater atop a small hill we looked on as the last group before us leapt into a rectangle of open water carved into the blanket of ice resting over the lake. With that, it became clear it was our time to plunge. There was no turning back.
|Next in line... and barely ready.|
Moments later we were flashed a signal to descend onto the aluminum dock wrapping around the open water and take our position in front of the open water. Some final anxious remarks escaped the lips of a few members of our group as we waited for our countdown to begin. Then, with the familiar call of “3, 2, 1...” we leaned forward and jumped. With my muscles clenched tight and my eyes closed, I felt my feet leave the ground in an arch and come down into a rush of astonishingly cold water.
|Jump! ...Of course, I have a camera in my hands|
Like thousands of tiny needles rushing over my skin, the water wrapped itself around me and immediately sent my body into overdrive. Quickly finding my feet on the lakebed, I began moving forward through the water and toward the shore. The rest of the group around me followed suit, creating a wall of people pressing toward the waiting staircases. Shivering and fighting for air, the six of us emerged from the water and forced our bodies forward up the hill. Within seconds we found ourselves jogging alongside a series of waiting hot tubs that drew us in for a quick warm up. As we dove into the steaming pools of water each of us let out a sigh of relief. Although we fully realized we would need to face the cold with wet skin once more, we soaked in the warmth of the hot tub and reveled in our success. We had completed the polar plunge, and with the exception of some wet, stinky clothes and hair, we came out largely unscathed.
|Cold. Wet... and cold.|
|Sweet Jesus, yes!|
After wrapping up our time in the hot tub, each of us went back to our respective changing tents, dried ourselves off, and climbed back into our street clothes. As I emerged from the changing tent, I was surprised to find a dynamic feeling of refreshment consume me as I hit the open winter air. In the most unexpected moment of the day, I felt invigorated in a way that was unfamiliar and exciting. It was as if the extremes of standing in the frigid temperatures and jumping into the freezing water had purged my winter baggage and left me ready to face the rest of the season. It was strange, but it felt incredible.
|We made it!|
Over a few beers in the music tent I was happy to find I wasn’t the only one feeling rejuvenated by the experience. Although Sunee and Mirela were clear in stating one plunge was enough for them, Micah, Keeth, and Shelley agreed the effects of the experience were cleansing in an odd sort of way. Uplifted by the experience, the six of us sipped away at our drinks and chatted as our hair dried and we recovered from the morning’s event. In time, members of our group slowly began to peel away, until only a few of us remained. With plenty of day left in front us, we eventually decided to bring our time at the polar plunge to an end and head to a nearby bowling alley to celebrate the day. What was an early morning event ended up turning into a day of surprising experiences and great fun. In my mind, there was simply no better way to spend today.
|The post-plunge photo-op. What an experience!|
As I look back on today’s experience with the polar plunge it is easy for me to recognize the amazing moments that came from the event. My co-worker’s and I were able to raise money for a terrific cause, make some terrific memories engaging in the absurd, and spend some time together in a way that will definitely stand out among my new experiences from my “I have never...” year. Where I would have avoided the polar plunge at all costs before starting this journey, I can now say I would gladly do it again. While the feeling of the freezing water and the biting air were anything but pleasant, the feelings of accomplishment and rejuvenation that followed the plunge were incredible, and the story we gained from the experience is one I know will stick. Today was so much better than I expected it would be. That makes me happy I mustered the courage to finally take the polar plunge.