COMMENTARY: Brave souls take plunge into Stephens Lake for good cause

Saturday, February 14, 2009 | 11:48 p.m. CST; updated 6:42 p.m. CST, Sunday, February 15, 2009
Participants of the 2009 Polar Bear Plunge were greeted by frigid 33-degree water in Stephens Lake. The event raised money for Special Olympics Missouri, and all $32,000 stays in central Missouri to fund athletes and events.

COLUMBIA — I lost my pants.

Experienced plunger Justin Wright said: Wear as little as possible during Columbia’s second annual Polar Bear Plunge for Special Olympics Missouri.


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Heavy clothes weigh plungers down and are just a pain to change out of, Wright said. I took his advice to heart.

But it wasn't good enough. Diving into the 33-degree water, my swim trunks,  mistakenly left untied, came off.

They slid down to my ankles, leaving everything exposed. Everything.

And it was cold.

The 285 participants who took the plunge, 82 more than last year, helped raise more than $32,000 as of Saturday afternoon. Hundreds of spectators gathered on a hill looking over Stephens Lake to watch the plunge. After Saturday’s success, the event seems to be on its way to becoming a Columbia tradition.

“Columbia is known for crazy things,” said Diane Brimer, central area director for Special Olympics Missouri. “The crazier the better.”

Many of the participants got the message. Plungers came dressed in all kinds of costumes and get-ups. There were young men in enlarged diapers, young women dressed as Hooters girls and a 51-year-old man dressed as Rocky Balboa — boxing gloves, robe and all. Not to mention the wacky names for teams of plungers, including “Sparklefart” and “Cold as Sheet.”

In addition to limiting clothes, past plungers offered up other advice and expectations beforehand.

• Pick your knees up when running into the lake. Otherwise, you’ll fall.

• Go out as far as possible. And get your head wet (in other words, don't chicken out).

• Don’t even think about it. Just go.

The plunge itself was a rush. It really is invigorating. Plungers came out refreshed and feeling better than many of the spectators.

“It’s not as cold as I thought it would be,” said Katelyn Kalmus, 19, from Lee’s Summit.

Kalmus had two friends with her, though neither took the plunge.

“She’s the crazy one,” said Lindsey Foster, 20, from Holton, Kan.

Foster and the other spectators far outnumbered the plungers.

“I couldn’t do it,” Brimer said. “I can’t do it.”

The hard part for the 285 brave ones was waiting to do the actual plunge. Many plungers arrived at Stephens Lake well before 2 p.m., the scheduled time for the event. Some even tailgated in a parking lot across the street. The plunge didn’t start until almost 3, after the “parade” showcasing all the teams and their outfits finally finished.

Kyle Johns plunged for the first time Saturday. Before the plunge, he was ready to get it over with.

“Nothing I can do about it now,” said Johns, 24, from Columbia.

Johns said his friends would sponsor him if he did a handstand in the water.

“I don’t know what it looked like, but I got it in there,” Johns said after the plunge.

Four Missouri Special Olympics athletes, part of a team called “SOMO Sweethearts,” were the first to plunge. Among the group was Shirlene Treadwell, a 39-year-old from Columbia who was grand marshal of Gov. Jay Nixon’s inaugural parade.

“Hold your breath,” said Treadwell, a 2007 inductee to the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, before the plunge. Treadwell, who competes in golf, bowling, tennis and volleyball, said she planned to go out farther in the lake this year.

The money raised from the event will support sports training and competition for more than 15,000 children and adults who participate in Special Olympics Missouri.

Luckily for the plungers, the lake was ice-free unlike last year, when firefighters spent four hours clearing the lake of ice before the plunge. After a cloudy and chilly morning on Saturday, the sun came out and stayed throughout the event.

Which is more than I can say for my untied trunks.

Beach. Cold water. Dive in. Trunks down. Trunks up. Beach.

The whole experience lasted, at best, 30 seconds. And that includes wrestling with my trunks.

I came out and stood on the beach with the other plungers.

They were relieved to be out of the cold water. I was relieved in a different way.



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