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Hundreds take the Polar Plunge for Special Olympics in La Crosse

La Crosse Tribune - 3/5/2019

March 04-- Mar. 4--Polar Plunge organizers deemed it too icy to be Freezin' for a Reason Friday evening, but more than 430 warm-hearted community members adopted the postal carrier motto Saturday morning, letting neither snow nor wind keep them from the frigid waters off Pettibone Beach.

For the 21st year, the Wisconsin Polar Plunge invited kids, students and adults to splash, wade or dive into a section of the Mississippi River in support of Special Olympic athletes, many of whom took the challenge themselves.

Since 1999, plunge participants and sponsors statewide have raised more than $20 million to fund 18 sports for 10,000 individuals with cognitive disabilities. La Crosse raised more than $100,000 in 2018, though with the cancellation of the Freezin' for a Reason 5K funds were expected to be down this year. Pre-plunge Saturday morning, the tally was about $70,000, a number anticipated to increase during the day.

"It's the first time in 21 years we've had to cancel (the 5K)," organizer Kerry Gloede said. "The winter weather just didn't cooperate but it was bound to happen at some point."

The Polar Plunge is part of the Law Enforcement Torch Run year-round fundraising campaign for Special Olympics Wisconsin, and offers divisions, including the Super Plunge, in which the bravest of souls make two or more dips into the river, as well as the Cool Schools Plunge, Toss Your Boss Plunge and the Pee Wee Plunge for fearless youngsters.

Individuals in yellow feathered suits and orange beaks bore the title of Too Chicken to Plunge, offering moral or financial support on the (still cold) comfort of the beach. Prizes were earmarked for best chicken costume, best plunger costume, most memorable splash and best group plunge.

Kristin Radde of Metropolitan Salon and Day Spa, a fifth-year plunger, was able to recruit six coworkers for the Fish Friends team, each wearing a day-of-the-week T-shirt as a play on the Discovery Channel's popular Shark Week.

The promise of an early-release work day -- and hottubs -- was enough to convince the plunge newbies to put on their shark fin headpieces and shorts in 22-degree weather. Though the temperature at last year's plunge was about 20 degrees higher, Radde was unfazed, recalling a year when it was so chilly volunteers had to cut the plunge section of the ice a second time.

The Fish Friends, who raised almost $1,000, said supporting local causes is a priority for them. The atmosphere of the plunge was energizing, said Jessie Taylor, while Alli Sudol was elated by the smiles and laughs all around.

"I just love when people are happy," Sudol said.

Viterbo freshman and first-time plungers Alison Coovert and Janelle King, who opted for university T-shirts, were delighted by the inflatable pretzel costumes and penguin onesies sported by other participants. Their team of eight raised more than $3,000, the cause particularly meaningful to Coovert, an elementary special education major who considers several Special Olympians among her best friends.

"It's a great opportunity for them to show off their abilities," said Coovert, who called the event, "Awesome and so much fun."

Special Olympian of 12 years Scott Prairie takes advantage of the sports programming year round, with track and field in the spring, golf in the summer, and bowling and skiing in the colder months. Prairie, who plunged for the 10th year on Saturday, has his post plunge strategy down, noting, "I run fast to the hot tub. I always run to the last one because the first ones are lukewarm."

Gloede is grateful for the hundreds of volunteers who make the Polar Plunge, and sports for individuals like Prairie, possible.

"I just think its really cool -- no pun intended -- to see so many people come out and support Special Olympics each year," Gloede said. "I'm just so grateful."

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Emily Pyrek can be reached at emily.pyrek@lee.net.

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