Polar Plungers aid Special Olympics in cold weather


Morgan Timms

Valerie Densler flicks her hair while participating in the Polar Plunge on Saturday, Feb. 25, 2017, at the Recreation Center. (Morgan Timms | @Morgan_Timms)

By Francois Gatimu

Lucas Etherton shivered in his neon green leotard at the thought of taking a plunge, looking at the frigid waters through the fabric alien eyes of his face mask.

He walked into the knee-high water while family members watched from the crowd, and dunked himself into a pool.

“It’s much harder coming out of the water than it is getting in,” Etherton said soon after emerging from the waters into the 34 degree outdoor air.


Etherton, along with 151 other participants, took part in the Carbondale Polar Plunge on Saturday at the SIU Recreation Center. The event, held in conjunction with the Donut Dash 5K run, is an annual fundraiser hosted by the university to support Special Olympics athletes.

Twenty six teams were represented, not including individual jumpers, with members wearing everything from event sweatshirts to costumes like the alien suit.

Close to $30,000 of the $55,000 goal were raised for the Special Olympics Saturday thanks to individuals and teams fundraising for the Polar Plunge.

Volunteer staff led teams to an above-ground pool holding 3,000 gallons of water outside the SIU Recreation Center. Many teams opted to hold hands while taking the plunge, with the occasional solo diver who went in head-first.

It was the second year the plunge was held in the SIU Recreation Center. The event usually takes place at Campus Lake, but was moved because of an ongoing lake cleanup.

“When you go to a new site, you don’t know how the flow of the event will go,” said Linda Wunder, regional director for Special Olympics Illinois, adding that the plunge helps raise funds for local Special Olympics athletes.

Participants were required to raise a minimum $100 in donations for a chance to jump into icy waters. All plungers received a complimentary sweatshirt, with a $1000, $500 and $250 prize for places first through third.


A large turnout came in support of the event, with a total of 152 plungers accompanied by friends, family and co-workers. Many of the spectators came out to watch those they had supported financially go through with the plunge.

“I want to see my co-workers get soaking wet and complain that it’s cold,” said Ronald Mertz, from Our Directions, a Herrin facility that employs people with disabilities. Mertz said he looked forward to the “camaraderie of the staff.”

Lori Spillman, a teacher at Unity Point School, came with seven other teachers in homemade costumes. It was Spillman’s ninth time plunging on Saturday, and she said her group has been planning their participation for the past year.

“It was sleeting one year when we did it at Campus Lake,” she said, unperturbed by the current plunge conditions.

Clint Meyer, a Pinckneyville correctional officer, came with his wife, Heidi, and about nine of his co-workers to support the event.

“I’m not afraid of the cold water,” he said. “It’s simple, just jump in and jump out and be done.”

Clint Meyer took the plunge for the first time Saturday in part to support children he knows who have special needs, including his son.

“It’s a good cause to support,” he said.

Staff writer Francois Gatimu can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @frankDE28.

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