FOX LAKE – By all accounts, it was a mild afternoon for the spectators gathered along the banks of Nippersink Lake on Feb. 25. The sun was out, and temperatures hovered in the high 30s.
Miss Fox Lake Hailey Hill, clad only in a purple one-shoulder cocktail dress, black heels and her tiara, was more concerned with the water temperature.
Hill linked arms with the Lake County Sheriff’s “Ice Breakers,” got a running start and plunged into Fox Lake’s frigid waters, kicking off the 2018 Polar Plunge.
“It was completely last minute,” Hill said. “I signed up at about 12:50, and we plunged at 1. ... It was absolutely freezing, but it was super fun.”
Fox Lake is one of 23 locations throughout Illinois that hosts plunges each year to raise money for Special Olympics athletes. “Plunge season” begins Feb. 16 and ends March 25. The first Polar Plunge was held in 1999 in Lake Bluff as part of the Law Enforcement Torch Run for Special Olympics Illinois.
“[The Law Enforcement Torch Run is] our largest single fundraising arm,” said Jordan Feldman, director of Region B for Special Olympics Illinois. “Each year, they raise between $3.5 million and $4 million on behalf of Special Olympics, and all those funds go back to benefit the athletes of Special Olympics – all 23,000 of them.”
This year, Fox Lake had 300 participants and raised more than $70,000.
To Feldman, the large turnout at these events goes beyond the desire for “bragging rights for jumping into a body of water that’s 35 degrees.”
“It means that people care about this cause,” he said. “It means they have been affected by an athlete with an intellectual disability in their life, whether it’s their son or daughter, niece or nephew, or they just met someone in high school who has an intellectual disability.”
Hill huddled in her coat in the Fox Lake Lakefront Park building, still wearing her drenched cocktail dress. Her black heels, now crusted in wet sand, had been discarded.
“Apparently you have to wear shoes, and all I had was high heels,” she said. “And I have no towel, but I think it’s such an important cause. I have a disability myself. I’m legally blind in one eye. I’ve never participated [in Special Olympics] myself, but I’m eligible, and it’s just near to my heart.”
Spectators and supporters lined the makeshift runway leading down to the lake and cheered on plungers as they splashed into the water. Many submerged their bodies for a brief moment before sprinting back into the heated changing tents, but others committed fully to the cause by sinking completely beneath the water.
A group of staff and teachers from Creekside Middle School in Woodstock dressed up as lumberjacks and prepared to plunge for the first time. Bonnie Lewis was part of that group.
“I’m a teacher for the deaf and hard of hearing,” she said. “We have a very big program in our school that has a lot of students who participate in the Special Olympics, so we just wanted to support them.”
After the event, awards were distributed to the top fundraisers in individual and group categories. In the individual category, Melissa Zientara of Buffalo Grove was awarded an actual plunger for raising about $4,000 for the event. Highland Park High School took the award for top group fundraiser for contributing more than $14,000.
Special Olympic athlete Alyssa Trafford, 17, of Wauconda, who earlier had watched her mother, Marci, plunge with her team, “Alyssa’s Crusaders,” said she loved being part of the festivities and watching everyone run into the water.
“[Polar Plunge] makes me feel like I’m worth something,” Trafford said. “I don’t feel unwanted. I feel like everybody’s there for me.”