By ASHLEY ANDERSON
Spring is exactly one month away, but before the weather becomes warmer, the “Biggest Chill In Town” is set to sweep the Ohio River this Saturday.
Despite a forecasted low of 32 degrees on Feb. 23, nearly 1,000 individuals will brave cold temperatures to leap off the dock near Tumbleweed on the Waterfront as part of the Polar Plunge benefiting Special Olympics Kentucky.
Celebrating its 15th anniversary in Louisville, the Polar Plunge is an annual fundraising event in which participants raise a minimum of $75 ($50 for Junior Plungers ages 12 to 18 or the Pee Wee Plunge for children 5 to 12) to experience a chilly dip in the Ohio River. “(The cold water) doesn’t faze me,” said Special Olympics athlete Kyle Gathof, who will take the plunge his eighth time on Saturday. “It’s kind of cold when you jump in, but after you get out it’s alright. It feels like summer.”
In light of the 15-year milestone, Special Olympics is pushing to break the all-time record for participation at the local jump with 1,500 “Polar Bears,” or people committed to taking the plunge. Two men in particular who’ve been dedicated to the annual cause are twin brothers Matt and Mike Higgins, CEO and COO of Tumbleweed Restaurant, respectively. Assembling a nearly-40-person Polar Plunge team this year, Matt and Mike’s support for Special Olympics doesn’t stop with their frigid swim in the Ohio. They’ve gone above and beyond to support the program, from planning “celebrity server nights” held at Tumbleweed throughout the year to donating $1 to Special Olympics from every Double Barrel Brownie sold year-round at the restaurant.
To up the ante even more, Matt and Mike agreed to a special bet with The Voice-Tribune’s Managing Editor Angie Fenton, who will also plunge into the Ohio River on Feb. 23. In exchange for allowing the public to vote on the outfit she’ll wear to the event, Matt and Mike will donate $1,500 in her name to Special Olympics. Tuesday morning on WHAS11’s “Great Day Live!” Angie was presented with the winning ensemble: A Wonder Woman-inspired bathing suit, which beat out cowgirl and cheerleading costumes as the top choice.
Angie’s costume will be one of many witnessed on the Waterfront next Saturday. It’s become a tradition for attendees to dress in all types of unique getups, competing for the honor of Best Costume, given to one individual and group following the plunge.
Prizes are also awarded to those who raise the most money for Special Olympics through the Polar Plunge. Each year, the top male and female fundraisers are named King and Queen of the Plunge, while the top younger fundraisers are crowned Prince and Princess. If you’re leery of swimming in the river, there’s a “Too Chicken To Plunge” category for fundraisers who’d like to raise money and stay dry, or you can simply donate in the name of a Polar Bear participant. Should you need any more incentive to join the cause, supporters who raise more than $250 could win a Caribbean cruise for two, courtesy of AAA Travel.
Last year’s Queen of the Plunge Mandy Connell will return to emcee the opening ceremonies of the Polar Plunge. Brent Rogers, co-owner of Sounds Unlimited Productions, and Special Olympics Communications Director Mark Buerger will emcee the remainder of the festive gathering, which will include donuts and hot chocolate from Krispy Kreme, dance music and, new this year, a Polar Plunge Village. “We’re hoping that people really enjoy that (Plunge Village) aspect of it,” said Candace Thompson, special events coordinator for Special Olympics Kentucky. “Tumbleweed will have a bar (outside) and lots of food. And then there’s also going to be vendors. … So I think that will be a fun part of (the event).”
The Louisville Polar Plunge is one of six plunges held in Kentucky in 2013. Other plunges are scheduled in Lake Cumberland, Lexington, Bellevue, Owensboro and Western Kentucky. The Polar Plunge is one of the biggest Special Olympics fundraisers of the year and has raised more than $5 million to support Special Olympics athletes over the last 14 years.
Special Olympics’ mission is to provide year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities by giving them continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and participate in a sharing of gifts, skills and friendship with their families, other Special Olympics athletes and the community.
“It’s a great mission, just allowing kids to be Olympians, and not just the kids, but their families,” Matt said. “A lot of parents don’t get to watch their kid be that excited in that culture. It’s just a great cause. We believe in their mission, we believe in participating as much as we can, and we love hosting this event.”
For more information on the Polar Bear Plunge, visit www.soky.org/louisvilleplunge.htm.
High water may force the Polar Plunge to be held in swimming pools set up along the Waterfront’s amphitheater. Kids 5 to 12 may go down a Pee Wee Slide leading into a pool should parents not want their children swimming in the Ohio River. Every Polar Bear Plunge participant will receive an official Polar Plunge T-shirt and Polar Bear Club certificate.
Contact writer Ashley Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org, 502.498.2051.