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Column: Chicago’s Polar Plunge is another pandemic casualty, but Special Olympics supporters are finding other ways to douse themselves in frigid water
Chicago Tribune - 3/4/2021
Lady Gaga won’t be jumping in a bracing cold Lake Michigan this month for Chicago’s Polar Plunge. Al Roker gets a pass, too, as do Jimmy Fallon, Rahm Emanuel and the guy who invariably shows up dressed as Mike Ditka.
The Polar Plunge, which raises money for Chicago’s Special Olympics and draws thousands of brave souls to North Avenue Beach — including, always, a handful of celebrities and politicians — is virtual this year.
The annual event, which began in 2000, sneaked in just under the wire in 2020 (March 1!), but COVID-19 precautions caught up to it this year, forcing organizers and participants to cancel the giant group dunk and replace it with something pandemic-friendly.
Special Olympics is a big deal in Chicago. The first International Special Olympics Games took place inside Soldier Field on July 20, 1968 — a joint effort between the Chicago Park District and the Kennedy Foundation, after years of work and advocacy by Eunice Kennedy Shriver. The following month, the Special Olympics was officially incorporated.
The Polar Plunge accounts for more than half of Special Olympics Chicago’s annual fundraising, typically raising more than $1 million for the 7,500 athletes who participate in the Special Olympics.
Taking this year off was never on the table.
“We adjusted,” said Deanna Panatera, “just like everybody else.”
Panatera and her husband, Joe, participated in Chicago’s last two Polar Plunges with their friends Amy and Packy McGowan, under the team name Marty and Reese’s Warriors.
The two families have long-standing ties. Packy McGowan and Joe Panatera attended Mount Carmel High School together in the late ’90s. Amy McGowan, who attended Mother McAuley, was a cheerleader at Mount Carmel at the same time.
In August 2018, the McGowans’ son, Martin, was born with Down syndrome. One month later, the Panateras’ daughter, Reese, was born with Down syndrome.
Their mutual friend Matt Hayes, also a Mount Carmel alum, introduced them to the city’s Polar Plunge. Hayes’ daughter participates in the Special Olympics and he’s an ardent supporter of the program.
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In 2019 and 2020, the McGowans and Panateras hosted months of pre-Polar Plunge fundraisers and loaded up two buses of friends to jump into Lake Michigan on the first Sunday in March. Their team raised about $70,000 each year.
“As a parent of someone who will eventually participate in Special Olympics when she’s willing and able, I feel like it’s my responsibility to make sure that program is thriving,” Deanna Panatera said. “We want our Reese to be able to have that same experience and team companionship and healthy competition she sees her friends and family having.”
For now, Amy McGowan said, Martin is happy doing dance parties with his older sister, Raegan.
“She’s always asking Alexa to play something and then he does ballet with her in the kitchen,” Amy McGowan said. “He’s really funny.”
Eventually, though, he may want to venture into competitive sports.
“My goal is to let Martin have the opportunity to do whatever he wants,” Amy McGowan said. “I just want him to be included. And I want others to see what kids with special needs are capable of doing.”
On Saturday, the McGowans and Panateras are hosting a virtual plunge at Letz Box Chicago, a boxing gym in Beverly. The gym will have a dunk tank set up outside and the two couples, along with friends and supporters, will be dousing themselves for a wonderful cause. (Saturday’s weather calls for a high of 39, low of 28.)
Virtual plunges have been popping up all over the city for the past few weeks, said Carolyn Daley, president of the Special Olympics Chicago and Special Children’s Charities Board. (Daley’s grandfather, Richard J. Daley, was mayor of Chicago during the inaugural games in 1968.)
“We’ve really seen some creative ones,” said Carolyn Daley, who was heading to a virtual plunge at Marist High School after we got off the phone Tuesday. A plumbers union, Daley said, devised a water cannon on the school’s football field for students to run through for money.
“My children and I had a dunk tank behind our house on Sunday and had friends and families come over, masked up, and dunk,” she said. “The tank was filled with water from my garden hose, and I had a few people tell me it was worse than when they jumped in Lake Michigan.”
On Wednesday and Thursday, preschoolers at St. Cajetan Elementary School, which one of Reese Panatera’s cousins attends, ran through an obstacle course that ended in an icy foot bath.
You can donate or learn how to host your own virtual plunge at chicagopolarplunge.org.
The pandemic forced most of Special Olympics Chicago’s programming to be canceled or held remotely. Daley said athletes stayed in touch through online pizza parties, Bingo nights and cooking events. As COVID-19 restrictions have begun to ease, she said, the Chicago Park District has been holding a few small, outdoor events for the athletes — fishing, archery, snowshoeing.
“You really realize how important it is for our athletes to see their teammates and friends,” Daley said.
Particularly in a year marked with so much uncertainty and loss.
From a fundraising standpoint, the pivot to a virtual Polar Plunge has some perks.
Supporters who wouldn’t or couldn’t make it to North Avenue Beach on a chilly March morning can plunge at home. Daley said she has a friend who raised money to jump in her own hot tub.
Deanna Panatera and Amy McGowan set up a website to raffle off donated items and host a silent auction to raise additional money leading up to their Saturday plunge. One of the silent auction items, a piece of original artwork hand-painted (finger-painted?) by Martin and Reese, is currently fetching $600, and the top bidder is from Louisiana.
“It’s definitely allowed more of my family and friends to take part,” Deanna Panatera said.
The couples set a goal of raising $20,000 this year, which they’re confident they’ll hit.
It’s different from years past, like so many things we cherish and look forward to. But that doesn’t make the effort or the outcome, on behalf of a few thousand phenomenal athletes and eventual athletes, any less remarkable.
Humans adapt, and we often adapt pretty beautifully — especially when our whole hearts are at stake.
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