In 2006 while working with KCTV5, a local CBS affiliate, I was approached about joining the company team for the Polar Bear Plunge. I had only been employed there for a few months and knew very few people due to my part time work schedule and because I started as the department pariah due to my father in law being the department manager. I only had a high-level understanding of what the plunge was about but still being in my 20s, feeling indestructible and looking for adventure I signed up.
The confirmation email was rather vague and as the company was a sponsor they weren’t expecting us to pay the entry fee, just to show up the day of the event and be ready to take the dive. I understood that this was good TV, a bunch of kooks jumping into freezing water was entertaining but for the life of me I could not understand what the whole point of it was. I was added to a group thread with several people I had never met mostly from the marketing and sales department. As a lowly member of the production team I didn’t input much to the discussion and the more vocal folks in the group settled on a theme for our team.
We were all suppose to dress as a famous person from the 1980s and most offered suggestions of Burt Reynolds, Madonna, George Michael, Michael Jackson and the likes. None of these fit my style and being a child of the 80s I thought I could do better. I hit up Google and searched through old videos and news articles about what was popular the decade I was born until I happened upon a news article about Ronald Regan and Gorbachev. Realizing the temperature would be in the single digits and not being brave enough to go shirtless like the Tom Selleck cosplayer this seemed like a viable option. If I dressed as the “Gipper” I could have as many layers of clothes as I wanted so long as the top one was a suit or something presidential looking. Not having much resemblance to our 40th president I ordered a mask online and went to the Salvation Army for an old pin stripe suit that would fit over my thermal underwear and multiple layers of socks.
The day of the event came and I showed up at Shawnee Mission Park on the SW side of town and found a surprisingly large number of vehicles. As a participant we were given a heat start time and instructed to park in an auxiliary lot where a bus would transport us to the swimming beach. Check in was a breeze but I felt bad when I saw that many of the people in front of me had raised money and I had not even paid my own entrance fee. Still I was handed a large comfy sweatshirt that proudly spelled out “Freez’n for a Reason” across the front with a cartoon polar bear diving from an iceberg on the back. As I walked past the gate there were 4 large hot tubs lining the walkway leading down to the tents.
Dressed to the 9s and looking out of place I made my way down to the waterfront where members of the local search and rescue team were using high powered machinery to slice through the ice. I have always fashioned myself as pretty resilient to the cold but seeing 6”-8” chunks of ice being stacked on the shore sent shivers down my back. Not knowing my teammates personally, I had decided I would be able simply identify them by their costumes. This proved to be more challenging than anticipated. After an awkward conversation with the A-Team, MC Hammer, Marty McFly and the Brat Pack I decided that our theme wasn’t all that original and I would just stand off to the side and wait till they announced our company name. Wave after wave of nut jobs rushed into the semicircle ringed with EMTs and off duty police wearing full body thermal suites as they stood guard protecting us from the deeper portions of the lake. At first I took joy in seeing the shocked look on each participants face as they took their first steps past the dry sand and into the lapping waves of murky water that waited. Every couple of minutes they held up the line and scooped up the ice chunks that had emerged.
Standing off to the side I was able to see each of the plungers run past me to eagerly change their clothes or straight to the hot tubs to warm up. I was worried I would miss the opportunity to jump with my team so I stood with my Regan mask on trying to peer through the tiny eye slits and remembering how much I hated these latex masks when I was a child. Finally I heard them announce our teams name and from the other side of the beach I saw a throng of people all dressed in red surge towards the water. As quickly as I could I ran across the front of the crowd clumsily stepping as my dress shoes filled with sand.
As I neared the water I was able to see that they had chosen to dress like members of the TV show Baywatch. I remember thinking to myself, “Baywatch isn’t from the 80s!” as I half fell into the water. Having stood in the cold for all this time I assumed the water wouldn’t be that much different, I was wrong. The shock didn’t hit me right aware as it took a moment for the cold to permeate the multiple layers of clothes I had. Once I was waste deep I decided that for the full experience I would need to take the plunge, literally. I took a deep break and after a slight hesitation dove under the water holding my breath. It was at this point I most regrated the mask as I could feel ice and water seeping under it as the water filled the void between my face and the latex. In a momentary sense of panic I attempted to rip it off as I rose out of the water. Those of you that are familiar with latex will know that when exposed to water and next to your skin the friction is immense, and it makes it near impossible to move. I did succeed in skewing it enough to obscure my vision though.
So there I was dressed in a suit, floundering in a frozen lake, surrounded by the cast of Baywatch with a large audience and a TV crew rolling as I attempted to stumble out of the water and with any luck into obscurity. As I trailed after my “teammates” (none of who offered to help me) I felt the weight of all the water dragging me down. I plopped towards the tent draining buckets of water as I went and removing layers as fast as I could. The same clothes that had insulated me till this point now clung to my body tightly sapping my body heat.
As I fished my dry clothes out of my duffle and began shoving my wet clothes into the trash bag I brought I realized that my towel had fallen out at home. Seeing my dilemma, a kind older gentleman handed me his extra one with a wink. After I finally transformed into a drier, less political version of myself I looked around but was unable to find the kind soul who handed me his towel. I emerged from the tent and looked around unable to find him. Oddly enough I still have that towel and although it was a simple act of kindness I still reflect back to that moment every time I use it. My wife wonders why we have an oddball towel but on more than one occasion it has been handy to have it lying in the wait at the back of the linen closet.
With the announcer releasing more costume clad crazies into the water I approached the Baywatch crew now dressed in casual clothes. They all got a kick out of my costume but asked me why I wasn’t in line with them. After some back and forth about failed logistics I pushed them on their choice of a 90s TV show when they proudly corrected me that it actually began in 1989. I chuckled non-combatively then walked off rolling my eyes.
That evening I was running the teleprompter for the news when the coverage of the plunge came on. Gary Amble the meteorologist and emcee of the event introduced the video and to my surprise made special mention of the “crazy guy in the suit” as the footage showed me running from the far side of the beach and stumbled into the water before cutting away. I never got up the courage to tell him that was me and to my knowledge none of the production crew knew about it to this day. The experience wasn’t enough to keep me away as I participated in the Polar Bear Plunge another couple times with the TV station then with my current employer and eventually with friends from the Geocaching community. I eventually roped my older kids into it sporting themes like superheroes and zombies. Following my first year I learned that the event raises money for the Special Olympics of Kansas and was lucky enough to meet some of the beneficiaries at the plunge. Over the 9 years I participated I am happy to say I raised close to $8,000 to help these young athletes find joy, confidence and a sense of accomplishment.