The Manhattan Polar Plunge was held on Saturday to raise funds for Special Olympics Kansas. Participants volunteered to jump into Tuttle Creek Lake in the middle of winter. The lake is normally frozen at this time of year.
Non-participants either volunteered as supporters or just watched, while many attendants participated in a costume contest. The event took a little more than an hour, and afterward all participants were invited to a party at R.C. McGraw’s to celebrate.
“The Polar Plunge proceeds provide funding for programs of Special Olympics Kansas,” said Luke Schulte, the director of special events for Special Olympics and main organizer of the Polar Plunge.
Schulte explained that the money raised is used to provide healthy meals, facility rentals and basically everything else when Special Olympics athletes compete at an event, so that they can participate with “no true cost.”
Many citizens and students from the community attended the event, both to participate and to provide support. Shulte estimated that there were around 260 participants jumping into the freezing water, with more people attending to support and cheer on their friends.
“It was a great turnout. I think it’s even higher than last year.” Schulte said.
The event has grown in the past few years as word about it has increased. Eric Laws, Manhattan resident, went for the first time this year.
“I wanted to see what it was about,” Laws said. “I’ve been hearing about it for four years.”
Laws helped teach a class called Interpersonal Skills at Manhattan High School for several years, which focused on bringing students with and without special needs together. This year, 39 students from the class participated in the event.
Stephanie Hoover, Fort Riley resident, took the plunge for the second year.
“It’s not that bad,” Hoover said, describing the feeling of jumping in the water. “The adrenaline kicks in are you’re like, ‘Let’s go!'”
She said the experience was much better than the year before, as last year the water was warmer than the air outside. Participants walked away from the event with damp hair and smiling faces, chatting to friends and family.
Dallas Gaither, junior in financial accounting, volunteered for the event as a supporter. When she noticed there was nobody who wanted to be the mascot, she decided to put on the polar bear costume.
“It was very insulating and warm,” Gaither said, noting that she thought the day was a lot warmer than it actually was.
Describing the children’s reactions to her, she said, “I suddenly got turned into a boy. Kids called me Mr. Polar Bear.”
Although most reactions were nice, like a little girl who gave her several hugs, others were not so friendly.
“One called me a monster,” Gaither said and laughed.
Reasons for attending the event varied, but a sense of community was prevalent. Hoover attended in support of her cousin, who was an athlete in Special Olympics and passed away last year. Gaither came at the suggestion of her sorority, Alpha Chi Omega, which places an emphasis on community service.
“When we first got here the lake was frozen solid,” Gaither said, explaining how they had to go out and break the ice in a 30-foot radius.
She also said that she felt that the event was for a great cause.
“It was very rewarding,” Gaither said. “I love to volunteer as much as possible.”
Gaither said she will definitely be returning next year to help out again.
For Schulte, the best and most important part of the experience was “seeing the smiles on the athletes’ faces while watching these crazy people jump into the water for them.”
Schulte said he finds his job with Special Olympics rewarding.
“I know it sounds cheesy,” he said, “but I really love what I do.”