Polar Plunge

Participants at a previous Polar Plunge take a dip in Lake Contrary to raise funds for Special Olympics Missouri. The event will return to Lake Contrary this year.

For 15 years, people in St. Joseph have been freezing to make sure Special Olympics athletes can get the resources they need to compete.

Financially hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Special Olympics Missouri hopes to make a comeback with its annual Polar Plunge with a return to its original location.

“We’re going back to Lake Contrary, finally,” Melody Prawitz, development director for Special Olympics North Area, said.

Being held from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 27, the Polar Plunge will serve as a kickoff to Special Olympics Missouri’s 50th anniversary, which the organization is hoping will be a year of safe events for its athletes and supporters.

“It’s been kind of different because we have to plan around what could happen. So we’re planning ahead and we’re going forward,” Prawitz said.

The plunge, which is celebrated around the United States, generates money that is used to provide athletes with intellectual disabilities year-round sports and training opportunities. The fundraising goal is $30,000, which Prawitz sees as achievable, even with all of the year’s setbacks.

“Our donations were down. Of course, we couldn’t hold any events, so it’s kind of like a Catch-22: If you don’t have a program side of it, you can’t very well go out and ask for money,” she said.

Having participated in past Plunge events, April Hook and Katie Lyle got competitive with their efforts to raise money.

“We both try and beat the other one. It’s like ‘My goal is to beat Katie’ and I never have,” Hook said.

For Lyle, it means supporting her brother Tanner, who has Down syndrome and has been a Special Olympic athlete for almost 30 years.

“I just love that it brings awareness to our program, and it also raises funds for the program to keep it going. And that means the world to people like me, because the program’s done so much for my brother,” she said.

While the Special Olympics Spring Games, one of the biggest events for organizations, went virtual in 2020, it’s looking to get back to in-person competitions this year. While there will be COVID safety protocols in place, it still may not compare to previous years.

“We have a lot of people that probably still will not participate, but we’re going to go ahead,” Prawitz said.

In addition to the plunge, the Special Olympics is planning fundraisers like a walk-a-thon with their athletes and a ladies night out flashing back to the 1950s to celebrate the organization’s 50th anniversary. With all of that, Prawitz said they’re still taking precautions.

“We’re still doing the social distancing. We’re wearing the masks and we’re taking temperatures at most of our events,” she said.

The move back to Lake Contrary will allow for people to be spaced at least 6 feet apart. Beyond the safety angle, Prawitz said she’s happy to see the event go back to its roots. Since 2017, the plunge has bounced between the St. Joseph Frontier Casino and Missouri Western State University. While the Special Olympics is thankful for those temporary homes, neither drew the audience Lake Contrary did.

“For the last four years we had been offsite due to the fact that their water had been bad ... but Lake Contrary is back. It’s looking great, so we’re going home,” she said.

COVID precautions like pausing in between groups so the changing tents can be cleaned and making sure groups aren’t crammed together will be in place.

With a theme for the plunge of “Jurassic Times for Jurassic Plungers,” Prawitz is hoping to see a lot of dinosaur costumes out in the water and the community together again.

“We’d just like to invite people to come out and watch if they want to. The beach is going to be wide open,” she said.

Participation in the Polar Plunge is $75 per person and includes a T-shirt. Those unable to attend can donate at somo.org/plunge.

Andrew Gaug can be reached at andrew.gaug@newspressnow.com.

Follow him on Twitter: @NPNOWGaug