Polar Plunge lives up to its frosty title this year

Mike Stewart, left, and Andrew Yabunoto enter  the water at Watson Park during the annual Polar Plunge Saturday. They were on  a team from McConnell AFB.
Mike Stewart, left, and Andrew Yabunoto enter the water at Watson Park during the annual Polar Plunge Saturday. They were on a team from McConnell AFB. Correspondent

Mother Nature paid an unexpected visit to Saturday’s Polar Plunge at O.J. Watson Park.

Frigid 26-degree weather and a coating of ice greeted about 100 participants in the annual dip in the drink to benefit Special Olympics Kansas.

Now, the event isn’t called Polar Plunge for nothing: It is still winter, and winter means cold – and sometimes ice.

But the plungers are used to better weather in recent years: temperatures in the 50s, a mild jolt when they wade into the Watson water.

Not today.

“There’s really no advice for jumping into 20 degree-plus water,” said plunge veteran Dom Valle, captain of a team from McConnell Air Force Base. “You just run in expecting the worst. There’s no planning for something crazy like this. You just do it.”

The polar plunge is in its 12th year in Kansas, ninth in Wichita, said Special Olympics Kansas official Jana Fornelli. Organizers hoped to raise $20,000 in Wichita this year, but the weather forced the cancellation of a Saturday morning road race in Watson Park – the park streets were coated in ice, suitable for little beyond ice skating – and held early arrivals down.

“It’s really not that bad,” Fornelli said. “It’s a shock to the system, for sure. You run into the water and you run right out. And it shouldn’t be hard to run out today.”

Funds raise support Special Olympics Kansas athletic programs, including the summer games, state softball, health screenings for athletes and programs for young athletes.

Valle and his teammates – Breanna Mendoza, Andrew Yabemoto and Mike Stewart – raised $630 from sponsors for an event they’ve mastered like a science.

Or so they claim.

“We have mentally prepared for this,” Valle said. “Andrew practiced at home in a bathtub of ice.”

Yabemoto, who was bundled up in a fur-lined parka, shook his head no.

“I’m actually surprised I came out of the last one two years ago,” he said. “When I jumped in, I wasn’t expecting the water to be as cold as it was and I opened my mouth and got a lot of pond water in my mouth. I was expecting an infection or something, but we came out all right.”

Why open your mouth?

“To scream when I hit the water,”

The McConnell team was missing one of their mates: Danny Smith – “a gentleman here in spirit,” Valle said.

“He’s sick right now.”

Better than sick after the event?

“That’s why the doctor told him he couldn’t come,” Yabemoto chuckled.

The plunge had a big law enforcement presence – Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeff Easter and Wichita Police Chief Norman Williams were in the crowd, as were several of their officers.

Make that backdrop, and not participants.

“Nah, that ain’t happening,” Easter said, grimacing in the wind.

Williams wasn’t dressed for a dip in the pond, either.

“No thank you very much,” the chief said.

The reality of today’s brief swim began to sink in when Mendoza and Yabemoto saw the winter weather roll in last night.

“I thought, ‘No,’ ” Mendoza said. “I’m so nervous. I don’t like cold.”

“Last night, when I saw the freezing rain coming down, I thought, ‘This is going to be a legit polar plunge,’ ” Yabemoto said.

The four spend their last dry hour plotting strategy – Valle pondered the wisdom of a “stop, drop and roll” entrance into the lake.

But by splashdown time, Yabemoto had simplified his plan.

“I’m just going to run into the water, mouth closed and thinking St. Croix,” said the New Mexico native.