Polar Plunge participants embrace Lake Michigan

By JeffGraveline

Fundraising for a good cause can make people do strange things. On March 9, Chicago’s 10th annual Polar Plunge proved just that.

More than 1,700 people from across the state took to North Avenue Beach, 1630 N. Lake Shore Drive, and enjoyed an icy dip in Lake Michigan.

“The main reason for doing this is because it’s a great cause,” said Mike Yonk, a 26-year-old financial planner from Chicago. “The Special Olympics is a great cause and [Special Olympians] don’t get many times a year to really shine, to be the center of attention.  Plus, it’s just a fun time.”

Thanks to those who participated in the event, the Special Olympics received thousands of dollars to help the more than 5,000 Special Olympics athletes in the Chicago area for events throughout the year.

For some, the plunge was an old habit. Many attendees participated in the plunge at least once before; some had participated in the event every year since its inception 10 years ago. But for those who took the icy plunge for the first time, there were no trepidations, only excitement.

“First of all, [the Polar Plunge] is something I’ve always wanted to do,” said Brandon Sparling, who raised the second highest amount of money on team Liquid Courage. “I’ve seen polar plunges going on here and there, all over the place, and I was like, ‘You know what, I’d like to do that some time.’”

Sparling got his opportunity to participate in the Polar Plunge because of the organizational skills of his friend Yonk.

Yonk organized the event’s largest team, with more than 60 members signing up to run down the beach and into the chilly waters of Lake Michigan.

The large group Yonk put together raised the most money out of the many participating groups and had the highest individual total raised by anyone participating.

As of March 10, Yonk’s team, Liquid Courage, had raised more than $14,800 for the Special Olympics through donations from friends, family, strangers and local businesses.

Team Liquid Courage did several large fund raisers before the event, including a charity poker tournament and a 100-person flippy cup tournament at local bars. Along with the fundraisers, Yonk and his friends hounded everyone they knew to join their cause.

“[I did] a lot of badgering,” Yonk said. “I set up a Facebook event wall back in Janu-

ary and just got all my friends to add all their friends on. We got a lot of e-mails, called a lot of friends; we got people from pretty much every social circle.”

With so many supporters, Liquid Courage and the rest of the participants readied themselves for a cold weekend.

However, Mother Nature had other ideas and gave participants an overcast, 46-degree day. With such great conditions, Yonk and his team were excited about the event even more than last year.

“I was excited looking at the weather approaching up to the week,” said Cliff Payne, another Chicago native who was part of team Liquid Courage. “It looked like it was going to be in the 40s, so I was pretty happy that out of all the weekends to do it in March, I think we got a pretty favorable weekend to do it.”

After what Yonk endured last year,  he said  the conditions could not have been better.

“Last year it was snowing out, [Lake Michigan] was frozen over,” Yonk said. “They had to have two bulldozers clear out the whole thing. The first two steps in the water was just four feet of slush.”

While the event only lasted a few hours, the memories the participants have will stick with them. As will the feeling of accomplishment from bringing in so much money for the Special Olympics.

Those feelings have led Yonk to plan an even bigger group next year, with a goal of getting 100-plus people together and raising even more money than this year.

For more information on how to donate to the Polar Plunge or to sign up for next year’s event, visit ChicagoPolarPlunge.org.