The temperature was a brisk -9 C, snow was gently falling, and there I was, wearing only my Hawaiian-themed bathing suit and a T-shirt, sitting on a lawn chair in the middle of a kiddie pool in my snow-covered backyard while a mask-wearing crew from Special Olympics Manitoba dumped buckets of ice and cold water over my head.
I agreed to turn myself into a human Popsicle Wednesday afternoon to help Special Olympics launch its first-ever Virtual Polar Plunge, wherein participants collect pledges, then post videos on social media of themselves "taking the plunge" in the frosty outdoors to help raise funds and awareness for the charity.
I was invited to help kick off the online campaign because back in 2016 I was one of about 60 people who took part in the Ultimate Polar Plunge, flying up to Churchill and then taking a flying leap into the freezing waters of Hudson Bay, famous for its polar bears, beluga whales and vast quantities of ice.
For more than a decade, the Manitoba Law Enforcement Torch Run — dedicated to raising cash and awareness for Special Olympics — has been organizing Polar Plunges, most often with the aid of a portable 75,000-litre tank of ice water they roll around the province.
Since the global COVID-19 pandemic arrived, however, the plunge tank has been in dry dock and in-person fundraising efforts have been thrown in the deep freeze amid safety protocols meant to tamp down the spread of the coronavirus.
This winter, the torch run realized the only way to keep people plunging in support of Special Olympics was to take the event online and have participants immerse themselves in snow and ice in the safety of their own yards, or possibly bathtubs.
"It became apparent we couldn’t do this in person so we decided, why not do it virtually?" said Darren Anderson, manager of the torch run and one of the people who dumped buckets of ice, snow and water on this columnist Wednesday afternoon.
The way the fundraiser works is participants register at plungemanitoba.com, collect pledges online, then share their goofy plunge videos on social media with the #PlungeAtHome hashtag. Plungers have until March 31 to post their videos online.
The warm-hearted CEO of Special Olympics Manitoba, Jennifer Campbell, took a great deal of enjoyment dousing this columnist with multiple buckets of ice cubes to promote the virtual plunge campaign.
"It was very refreshing," Campbell giggled once the backyard "plunge" had been captured on video by a Free Press photographer. "It took my breath away."
She said the pandemic has not only made fundraising exceptionally difficult, but it has been a devastating blow to Manitoba’s 2,000 Special Olympians because they have been unable to get together in-person with teammates and coaches.
They’re hoping the virtual plunge will raise at least $50,000. "This year has been unique for us, as it has for everybody," Campbell confided. "The money raised from this year’s plunge will mostly go towards our new online and virtual programming for our athletes. It will help them now and moving forward.
"Virtual and online is the way of the world. Our focus has been on online options for our athletes... even though sport is our vehicle, taking care of their mental health has risen to an equal priority.
"Special Olympics is more than just sport. It’s a family. When those in-person contacts stopped, friendships were suddenly gone. It presented us with a challenge to meet the needs of our athletes."
Adam Lloyd, 32, a Special Olympics basketball and floor hockey player who also dunked this columnist, said not being able to meet in person with coaches and teammates has been hard on the athletes.
"It’s been challenging, but it’s just another obstacle athletes face every day," Lloyd said. "Athletes always overcome obstacles. Some are doing Facebook videos and group chats and Zoom calls to keep themselves engaged so they don’t fall into something and get into trouble."
Anderson and Terry (Hopper) Hopkinson, manager of fundraising for Special Olympics, said would-be plungers can let their imaginations run wild, while observing safety protocols and common sense, in making their videos, which will be shared online at plungemanitoba.com and the social-media platforms of Special Olympics and the torch run.
"Find a creative way to get cold," Anderson explained. "It could be doing a snow angel in your bathing suit in the front yard. The sky’s the limit. The Morden police had the fire department set up their hoses on a truck and each member of their Polar Plunge team stood under the hoses for several seconds."
The plunges are meant to take place outside, but if you want to fill your bathtub with ice and hop in, that’s OK, too.
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"We are inspired by everybody’s creativity, but we remind you to do it safely," Anderson said. "We’re not promoting people jumping into Lake Winnipeg through a hole in the ice."
Not long after gleefully dumping ice on me, Hopkinson said the money raised from the virtual plunge is needed more than ever because of the pandemic.
"The fundraising is pretty much non-existent these days," he said. "It’s been a tough year. Fundraising is down easily 60 to 70 per cent. We’ve made up with some virtual events. But the most important part for the athletes is their connection to the other athletes. It’s had a huge effect on them, quite frankly."
So prepare to get cold, Manitobans, because Special Olympics needs your help. And if a panel of athletes likes your video the best, you could win the coveted Golden Plunger Award.
"Somebody is getting a spray-painted plunger for sure," Anderson vowed. "It’s not real gold, but it is a real plunger."
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● You can register, make donations and find more info at plungemanitoba.com. There’s a $100 registration fee, with each participant receiving a $75 tax receipt. Plungers can choose to waive the registration fee if they collect $100 in pledges.
● Capture your “plunge” on video. The idea is to do something goofy outside in the cold, while observing public-health protocols.
● Share your video on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter using #PlungeAtHome and #FreezinForAReason hashtags. Be sure to tag your videos @SpecOManitoba and @ManitobaLETR. Or just email them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
● All the videos will be posted on plungemanitoba.com as well as through the Special Olympics MB Facebook and Instagram (@SpecOManitoba) as well as the Manitoba LETR Facebook and Instagram (@ManitobaLETR).
● All participants get a Polar Plunge T-shirt, and one video will earn the coveted Golden Plunger Award.