TURK LAKE — Of the 173 participants jumping into the cold water for the annual Polar Plunge fundraiser for Montcalm County Special Olympians on Saturday, there was none who epitomized the bravery and commitment more than 7-year-old Layla McKenzie of Greenville.
As she walked up to the wooden platform that lay on ice at the edge of open water outside the Turk Lake Bar, McKenzie had second thoughts.
In fact, she started to cry. Many of other plungers could relate.
The 22-degree temp was actually welcoming, considering, a week before the event, many people, including Polar Plunge coordinator Jim Dennis, feared temps may be too cold to jump. But despite an overcast day, the wind was almost nothing and the crowd of more than 800 people saw only a few big snowflakes that almost served as confetti, a nice touch for such an event.
But it was still winter. It was still cold. In fact, Dennis said it was the coldest Polar Plunge event he’s had yet.
The Montcalm County Sheriff’s Dive Team cut through 18 inches of ice just to make an opening for the Polar Plunge. And while the wind was minimal, it could be felt a thousand times more when soaked in wet clothing.
And that may have been what made McKenzie cry. She saw the people dressed in varities of costumes, jump in the 33 degree water. She saw their faces as they emerged. She knew what was coming.
As fellow “plunger” Casey Christie of Trufant said, “it’s the anticipation of jumping that’s the worst.”
As scared as she was, McKenize knew why she was doing something so daring. It certainly wasn’t just for the fun of it, and it had to do with more than just supporting Special Olympics, although a worthy cause in of itself.
McKenzie, the youngest jumper at the event, was accompanied by her mother, Jamie McKenzie, Aidan Porta, 8, and Chris Bartosiewicz. All four were dressed in black T-shirts bearing the name and picture of Jamie McKenzie’s cousin, U.S. Army Spc. Bradley Rappuhn of Grand Ledge, who died while
serving in Afghanistan three years ago.
“She was a little scared at first, but she did a great job and jumped in,” said Jamie McKenzie of her daughter. “We did this together for Bradley.”
While warming up inside the restaurant and enjoying a beverage after the event, Layla McKenzie, sitting on Bartosiewicz’s lap and wrapped into her arms, didn’t have much to say, but when asked if the water was cold, she firmly nodded yes.
Although it was the coldest Polar Plunge event to date, this year’s event was also the most successful in its six years of existence, having raised more than $55,000 (at first count), which is $19,000 more than last year. The event had been held at Clifford Lake Inn in Stanton the past five years, but was moved to Turk Lake Bar after the historic inn closed suddenly last November.
With the new location and high turnout, Dennis couldn’t be more happy.
“This was awesome. The event went crazy with this many people showing up,” said Dennis, who started the event by plunging into Turk Lake. “The owner of Turk Lake Bar, Tom Smith, and his daughter, Mary Rees, were great hosts, and the Montcalm County Dive Team did a wonderful job keeping everybody safe.”
Dennis also recognized Marianne Hunsinger of Grand Rapids, who helped coordinate the event. The two are coworkers at Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, which helps put together the Polar Plunge event each year.
The costumes at this year’s Polar Plunge were just as entertaining as the jumping. Costumes ranged from bathing suits to zombies to superheroes to wrestling icons to Tellie Tubbies. Amy Tracy’s “Flo” costume (of Progressive Insurance) won best costume.
Many plungers jumped solo, in pairs and in groups. One group from the Topper Shop in Trufant dressed as zombies.
“We had outfits made by our owner, Tammy Hollinshead,” said Christie, who participated in her second Polar Plunge. “She bought the clothes, dyed them and altered them. They were great, but they were so heavy when we got wet.”
Volunteers handed out blankets provided by Sheridan Community Hospital.
Turk Lake’s Stephanie Gillespie made her first ever plunge, raising $907 for the cause. She plans to do it again.
“This was definitely fun, but definitely cold,” she said. “Seeing some of the Special Olympians here, and seeing everyone participate like this, it was amazing. Special Olympics was just held at Traverse City so all of Special Olympians were wearing medals. It was so great.”
Another first-timer, William Decker of Grand Rapids, who was one of the 11 members of the Kent County Parole Probation team that participated in the event, did whatever it took to raise funds.
Dressed as the famous World Wrestling Federation wrestler Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart, with hot pink body spandex and long goatee to boot, Decker brought his Polar Plunge persona to work and, at night, to the bars to try and raise $500 for his cause. His efforts raised $3,600, the most by an individual at this year’s Polar Plunge. His team raised more than $10,000.
“I’ve never done anything as crazy as this,” Decker said. “I originally wanted to raise $500, but I got that in a week. I hounded everybody I could. This was a fun time.”