Taking the Polar Bear Plunge

When you see a long line of people huddled together, shivering, you would think they were trying to get out of the cold. But the line in Canal Park on Feb. 19, 2011 seemed to take little notice. Not only were they standing in the cold, they were jumping into the lake.

Volunteers splashed a Polar Bear Plunger after he jumped into Lake Superior on Saturday, Feb. 19 for the Special Olympics fundraiser. Photo by Tara Mortenson

Over 850 people jumped into the icy water of Lake Superior during the Polar Bear Plunge for Special Olympics Minnesota. The Polar Bear Plunge in Duluth was one of 14 to be held statewide over the winter months.

Many polar bear plungers were in costumes and skimpy outfits. From a banana suit to a leather vest with a tutu, one thing was certain, the atmosphere resembled Halloween rather than the middle of winter. At the start of the event, two friends stood together dressed in red swim trunks, waiting patiently for their turn in the icy water.

“The warm water draws out a good crowd.” said Chris Bruzda, a second year polar bear plunger.

“This is my first plunge,” said Matt Manor. “I wanted to do it last year but I was out of the country.”

Bruzda and Manor are juniors at UMD that were participating in the Top Dog Challenge. Students and faculty at UMD challenged their counterparts at St. Cloud State to raise money for the event. Over $142,000 was raised for the event, almost $22,000 from UMD students and faculty. This was more than enough to earn the UMD Bulldogs the title of Top Dog. All  funds raised at the Duluth Polar Plunge go directly to special olympic programs and training for special olympic athletes in the Duluth area.

“It’s something to do on a nice February day,” said Manor. “It's not very often that I get a chance to support an organization in just a fun way.”

As they neared the icy shore of Lake Superior they were braving the below-freezing temperatures. They stood shivering, still dry at this point, watching people walk to the end of the dock to take the plunge.  While plungers ran frantically back up the shore, and through the crowd, the two friends could only imagine how cold the water was.

“I’m expecting a shock,” said Manor.

“But we’re excited,” said Bruzda.

Finally, after 30 minutes of waiting in line, it was their time to take the plunge.  Bruzda and Manor approached the end of the dock. With only a short pause, they jumped in. Though both tried to outdo one another by staying in the water the longest, they both gave up the fight at the same time. Together they made the brisk jog out of the water and toward the warming tents.

“Coming out of the water, it felt like my eyes were frozen shut,” said Manor. “And I did stay in longer,” he added with a smile.

“Absolutely,” said Bruzda. ”Jumping into freezing cold water doesn't sound very fun, but it’s really exciting and I can't wait to do it again next year.”

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