More than 140 people walked the plank on Saturday at Cabela’s lake in Gonzales to jump in icy waters for the eighth annual Polar Plunge for Louisiana Special Olympics.
The fundraiser garnered an estimated $75,000, said Maj. Ward Webb, one of the organizers and jumpers with the Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office.
The first group of plungers hit the water about 10 a.m., after the 34 teams made up of 140 people received instructions for the day.
Each jumper donated a minimum of $50 to make the plunge, and many raised more than the minimum by collecting money from friends and family.
As boats brought the jumpers to a platform in the middle of the lake, hundreds of supporters stood on the banks waiting to cheer.
Gonzales Mayor Barney Arceneaux reminded the crowds assembled, “We can’t do it alone. We need all of you here.”
The first team to dive into the 40-degree waters included Livingston Parish Sheriff Jason Arnold, St. James Parish Sheriff Willy Martin, Ascension Parish Sheriff Jeff Wiley, Assumption Parish Sheriff Mike Waguespack, U.S. Marshal Kevin Harrison, Baton Rouge Police Chief Carl Dabadie Jr. and Webb.
Before making the jump, Wiley joked, “I want to thank Jay Grymes. He promised me partly cloudy (weather) with a chance at being correct.”
“When you hit the water, your body froze and became stiff,” jumper Elizabeth Doise said.
Doise was a returning participant, having jumped last year with “Lydia’s Team” (also known as “A League of My Own”), a group of friends and relatives of Lydia Roberts, a Special Olympics athlete. Lydia’s Team has gained a reputation among Polar Plunge participants as the first group to wear costumes to the event, Doise said.
Each year, Roberts and her team arrive in costume and can be seen throughout the day dancing. Crowds cheered loudly as Roberts overcame her hesitations and plunged into the icy water, rising to the roar of the crowd’s applause.
“What I loved was watching Lydia’s reaction,” Doise said.
Also supporting Roberts was Miss Louisiana Lacey Sanchez, a Baton Rouge native. Sanchez agreed to come to the event after being contacted by Lydia’s Team online.
“I love giving back to the community,” Sanchez said, adding that it is the purpose of her office. “It’s been so much fun. All of the jumpers are really excited and very brave.”
One group that takes the fundraising seriously was the team from the Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office, which collected close to $2,500 from more than 170 donors, said Allison Hudson, public information officer for the Sheriff’s Office. She said Ward pulled in $17,869 dollars through his email and personal campaign and was the event’s top fundraiser.
The East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office raised $5,000, and adding to the total were teams from the St. James Parish Sheriff’s Office, the Livingston Parish Sheriff’s Office, the Baton Rouge Police Department, the Gonzales Police Department, the State Police, and the LSU Police Department.
“Law enforcement are the greatest supporters of Special Olympics in the state of Louisiana,” Grymes said.
Other notable teams that jumped included the Galvez-Lake Volunteer Fire Department, the East Ascension High School swim team, St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, RaceTrac, the Special Children’s Foundation, Donna’s Dears, Galvez Middle School, Cabela’s and the Special Olympics Association.
After jumping, participants were able to change clothes in heated tents before collecting commemorative items from the incentive booth, where volunteer Juanita Albert worked.
Many, including Albert, reflected on how the event has effected their lives.
“Overall, (the Polar Plunge) affected me a lot,” Albert said. “It changed my whole outlook. Before (I got involved), it was like I never had the time. Now, I find time to do what I want to do,” Albert said of her volunteer work with Special Olympics.
“God has blessed us with a beautiful day,” said Webb, who has been involved with the Polar Plunge since its inception, raising thousands of dollars every year and credited as being “Mr. Special Olympics” by Wiley.
The Polar Plunge benefits thousands of Louisiana residents with physical and intellectual disabilities, Matt Williams, who served as emcee along with Grymes, said.
Saturday’s event was the first of two polar plunges set this year. The second will be March 14 in Shreveport.
The Polar Plunge is a partnership effort between the Louisiana Law Enforcement Torch Run and Special Olympics. It raises funds and awareness for Special Olympics Louisiana, a statewide organization that provides free sports training, athletic competition and health care to approximately 14,000 individuals with physical or intellectual disabilities living in Louisiana.
To learn more information about Special Olympics, visit laso.org.
To see a photo gallery from the event, click here.