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Taking the Polar Plunge for Gaston Special Olympics

Gaston Gazette - 2/23/2020

Some may have said Deputy Christopher Maner had lost his mind when he agreed to wear a black-and-gold tutu and jump into a swimming pool filled with near-freezing water Saturday morning.

But the only thing Maner ended up losing was part of his wardrobe.

"I lost my tutu somewhere," Maner said afterward as he searched for warm clothes and a towel. "I jumped in and came out of that tutu. It wouldn't let my legs go."

Maner and five other Gaston County Sheriff's Office employees joined hands and were the first to leap into the Lineberger Park pool on Saturday morning as part of the Polar Plunge to raise money for the Special Olympics of Gaston County.

Maner and his co-workers were among the hundreds of people who paid money for the opportunity to leap into the cold waters. While Saturday was sunny with an air temperature hovering in the low 40s, the pool water was frigid after consecutive mornings of temps down into the 20s.

"Mother Nature really helped us out with the Polar Plunge," Maner said. "She really wanted us to feel the excitement."

Tim Lancaster, a sergeant with the Sheriff's Office, said one his co-workers said the water in their pool Saturday morning was 15 degrees. He said the Lineberger pool temp couldn't have been much higher.

"It was cold," Lancaster said as he toweled off following the plunge. "I've got a place in the mountains and that water is way colder than it is up there."

Both Maner and Lancaster said their first-time plunge was worth the goose bumps as the event benefits a good cause.

Carolyn Houser, a correctional officer with the Sheriff's Office, came up with their outfits for Saturday's event, which featured black-and-gold tutus offset by black shorts and T-shirts.

"I was just trying to figure out how I could make them look as embarrassed as possible," Houser said with a laugh. "The Sheriff's Office does a lot with the Special Olympics."

Among the events they participate in are a fishing tournament in April, the Torch Run and the Angel Bowl.

Steve Will was outfitted in a long, black, curly wig that he called his "rock n' roll outfit." His 7-year-old son, Raylan, was going to give his dad a ceremonial push into the cold waters.

"I'm a rock star," Will said with a big smile. "The kids like when you do things like that."

Will, who is a physical education instructor at Webb Street School for the past three years, was taking part in his first Polar Plunge. Webb Street is a school for special needs students in Gaston County. Its approximate 160 students range in age from 5 to 21.

Will said he was drawn to Webb Street because of the fact it's a separate school.

"I believe separate schools are a better environment for the students where there are smaller classes and less distractions and you can specialize a room for just one type of disability," he said.

"We try to group our students that way and they feel comfortable. And when you're comfortable, you can learn. And I think that's really, really, really important."

It's a career choice that Will finds very gratifying.

"There's a lot of rewards to it," he said. "You see a lot of kids greeting you in the morning. They hug you. You can tell they like school."

Many of the Webb Street students take part in the Gaston County Special Olympics track and field events each May.

Jacob Huffman, a 24-year-old Gastonia resident, has competed in a number of events for the Special Olympics and won several medals. He's the vice chairman of the Special Olympics North Carolina Athlete Council.

While he passed on jumping into the cold waters, Huffman, who was diagnosed with autism at age 8, was thankful for those who did.

Huffman said when he's not training and competing as an athlete, he's advocating for the inclusion of everyone, whether they have a disability or not.

"As someone with an intellectual development disability, in the past we have been ostracized and excluded from a lot of things," he said. "We just want inclusion, whether it's on a team at school or a club or employment. We really just want to be included. That's what we're fighting for -- inclusion."

Huffman has not let the disability slow him.

"Today, when you take the plunge, remember this one word -- bravery," Huffman told the crowd gathered around the Lineberger pool.

"As the athlete's oath states, 'Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me brave in the intent.' This phrase dates back to the days of the Roman gladiators. Today, keep this in mind as you plunge.. be brave, just as the gladiators, just as the athletes."

And one final bit of advice, Huffman offered?

"On the bright side, at least it's not snowing."

You can reach Michael Banks at 704-869-1842, email and follow on Twitter @MichaelBanksNC.


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