With temperatures in the mid-40s and little wind, Saturday’s fundraiser for Montana Special Olympics might have been called the slightly-more-bearable Polar Plunge.
But participants still did everything they could to quickly get in and out of Lake Elmo in Billings. Unlike some years when ice thickly coats the Heights lake, this year saw only a trace of ice toward the water’s edge.
Still, the actual plunge lasted barely a half hour. Teams quickly lined up, jogged into the water, dunked themselves, gasped or giggled, then hurriedly retreated to the shore as a large crowd of onlookers cheered them on.
Some participants jumped into a hot tub in a tent to warm themselves up. Others quickly traded their wet clothing for dry garments.
A few teams wore costumes that ranged from Christmas hats and ornaments to lumberjack duds and beards to tall pink wigs and matching T-shirts and tutus. Gordon Boese of the Northwest Drifters, wearing a dress and a wig, won for best costume.
The male Village People, wearing grass skirts and coconut-shell bikini tops, took best team costume. The Fools Goldy team raised the most money, with a total of $12,000, and Heidi Goldy was the top fundraiser with $11,000.
About 125 “plungers” on 25 teams raised $35,000 during the annual event, more than last year’s $32,000, said Mandy Patriarche, development director for Special Olympics Montana. It’s one of 12 in the state that run from the day after Thanksgiving through mid-February.
Sixty percent of the money stays in the area and 40 percent goes to the state office to put on games and trainings. Locally, it helps cover transportation, uniforms and other team needs.
“This year we’ve gotten a lot of school involvement throughout the Billings area,” Patriarche said. “It’s really great to have school support because we have a lot of athletes in the schools.”
Lockwood Schools took part in the plunge for the first time this year. Principal Kelly Kinsey said students and the special education teachers came up with the idea that if they could raise $1,000, he would take the plunge.
The students raised more than $900. But that didn’t stop Kinsey, three teachers and the school resource officer from joining in.
“I wasn’t going to let them down, even if they were a little short,” Kinsey said.
Mark Goldy attributed his team’s fundraising success this year to being surrounded “by extremely generous people.”
“Without them, there’s no way we could do it,” he said. “We’re just happy they’re willing to support our team and support Special Olympics.”
Goldy, dressed in a retro look with a long wig and bright-pink baseball cap, said in his work as a physical therapist and athletic trainer, he works with a lot of athletes.
“Special Olympics allows athletes of all abilities to participate,” he said. “It’s fantastic.”
This was the third year that a team representing Alternatives in Billings took part, and the second time Bobbi Jo Walla, who works at Alpha House, joined in. She shared a little advice to the other seven staff members and family who made up the Alternatives Pink Ice Panthers.
“I told them to bring clothes they can get off quickly, and blankets,” Walla said, sporting a bright-pink wig, pink T-shirt and tutu. “Because when you get out of the water, you want to go and get it off as fast as you can.”
Team member Sally Cebuhar, who works at Passages, said she’s always wanted to take part in the Polar Plunge. She taught special education for 37 years, 32 of them at Castle Rock Middle School, and served as a World Games coach for Montana back in 1995.
“They’re a little community that all get together, the adults, the young kids,” Cebuhar said. “Just to see them participate in bowling, in swimming, basketball, gymnastics, dancing, track and field — it’s wonderful.”
Jennifer Winchell, firefighter and fire prevention officer for the Laurel Volunteer Fire Department, was back for her second year, along with nine other colleagues. The Laurel department has been a longtime supporter of the event, she said.
“I think a lot of us have family members who compete in Special Olympics and it’s close to our hearts,” Winchell said. “So it’s very important.”
Law enforcement agencies have been involved with Special Olympics for a long time, said Adam Lauwers, event organizer and deputy with the Yellowstone County Sheriffs Office. The plunge is a Torch Run event.
It’s a nice way to give back to the community and a chance to see the positive side of life, he said.
“It allows you to recharge your batteries and see things in a different perspective again,” Lauwers said.
A six-year veteran of the Polar Plunge, he’s developed a strategy regardless of the weather: get in, get out and change clothes as quick as possible.
It's actually a been little easier in the past, when he had to jump a hole cut into the ice, Lauwers said.
"The worst part about this year is you run out, so you get lots of time to change your mind, instead of just jumping in," he said.