More than 500 participants brave the winter weather for Special Olympics in the Polar Plunge at Stephens Lake Park on Saturday. | SARAH ROTHBERG
COLUMBIA — Sandy Roberts was dressed like a luffa Saturday afternoon. Her daughter and niece were sponges, and her son and a family friend completed the theme by dressing as bars of soap.
This was Roberts' seventh time at Polar Plunge Columbia. But this time, she was not quite prepared to plunge all the way into the water.
“I’m not so sure we’re getting in this year," Roberts said. "We may just walk up and dip a toe.”
More than 500 people with varying degrees of determination dove into the 35-degree water of Stephens Lake at Saturday's 2014 Polar Plunge Columbia.
As the event was set to get underway, shards of ice floated on the surface of water that was so cold that if you just stuck your arm in, you'd feel as though it had gone missing.
This was only the second time the Columbia Fire Department had to cut into the ice to allow the event to continue, Crystal Schuster, development manager of the Special Olympics Missouri, said.
"This time we actually had to take a backhoe with a rock breaker on it to get the ice broken," said Schuster.
Although the Fire Department cut a 20-by-30-foot hole into the water Friday, firefighters had to remove another inch of ice that had refrozen overnight before they even started.
Firefighters then remained in the water throughout the plunge to secure the ice-free perimeter of the lake. They joined in the festivities by offering high-fives to everyone who jumped into the water.
"This is a very nice event," second-time plunger Edward Czebrinski said. "It's for charity, and if I'm going to freeze my butt off, I might as well freeze my butt off in the best way I feel I can."
Czebrinski was dressed in a black Speedo and matching hula hoop. He and his teammates dressed to look like the ringed Olympic symbol.
Despite the low water temperature, spirits ran high as participants, dressed in costumes such as pirates, vikings and the cast of "Duck Dynasty," readied themselves to take the plunge.
"Our costumes have traditionally been really bad, and we thought we’d go for something a little better,” Roberts said.
Gayla Palmero, a first-time Plunger and mother of two Special Olympic athletes, was dressed in a cat-lady costume, including hair curlers and a stuffed cat doll.
"I'm excited and scared," she said. "I love the cold, but I hate water. I’m fine with the snow, but the water is going to be challenging."
Altogether, 21 groups jumped into the frigid water while nearby a group of college-age men played hockey on the ice.
At least one spectator went in by accident. Ten-year-old Grace Remelius was standing on the edge of the ice to watch her dad take the plunge. She said she wanted to get as close as possible. But her feet broke through the ice.
She wasn't harmed, though. Her boots were soaked, and her feet were cold. But Grace was laughing on the way into the warming tent.
"I didn’t mean to plunge, but I accidentally did," she said.
After the plunge, participants were provided with towels and directed to heating tents to prevent hypothermia as the Fire Department stood by in case a participant felt too cold. Paramedics responded for one woman who was experiencing trouble breathing after leaving the water.
For most plungers, the event was a success, inspiring most to make the Polar Plunge a tradition every year.
Schuster said that the attendance, though slightly lower than last year's, was consistent with the turnout the event has seen in the past. And even with the cold, the event raised more than $60,000 for Special Olympics Missouri.
And the attendees didn't let the cold hold them back too much. Palmero ended up going into the water up to her shoulders.
"My feet are cold, but I’m not that cold," she said. "I'm glad I did it. I will definitely do it again next year."
Even Roberts dipped a little more than her toe in. She waded in up to her knees while she held hands with her daughter.
That was enough for her this year.
Supervising editor is Edward Hart.
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From left: Savannah Dahlin, Jason Burke, Kelsey Dahlin and Teresa Dahlin attend the Polar Plunge. Asked what could be colder than the plunge, Jason Burke said, "Whatever it is, I don't want to feel it." See more photos on the Missourian's Facebook page.
Stephens Lake Park