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Freezin’ for a reason: Polar plunge raises $100,000 for Special Olympics

HOLLIDAYSBURG — Nine inches of ice on Canoe Creek Lake made for perfect conditions as penguins, unicorns, chickens and even an arctic mermaid plunged into the icy water Saturday to raise money for Special Olympics Pennsylvania.

With partly sunny skies, flurries and temperatures in the upper teens, more than 250 people descended on Canoe Creek State Park for the 11th annual Winter Games Polar Plunge.

“It’s a bit chilly but it’s good,” said Karly Heath, Special Olympics Pennsylvania Western event manager. “We’re here and ready to plunge.”

Heath said the water was slushy when officials arrived on Friday for the initial setup, but the overnight drop in temperatures to the single digits turned the slush to ice.

“There is nine inches of ice out there that they cut through,” Heath said. “It makes for the perfect plunge.”

Participants sported a variety of fashions.

Both the water and shore were covered with ice, with event and Department of Conservation and Natural Resources officials doing their best to chip away at slick surfaces before the majority of the crowd arrived.

On shore, participants and supporters of all ages played games and warmed up by the fire, and snacked on hot dogs, donuts, coffee, hot chocolate and ice cream sandwiches provided by Sheetz.

Registration began at 9 a.m., and the event’s opening ceremony kicked off about 11:30 a.m. While not taking the plunge herself this year, Miss Pennsylvania and Altoona native Meghan Sinisi, who emceed the event, said she plunged three years ago and lauded those getting into the icy water to support Special Olympics.

But not everyone jumped into the water.

Those on the shore who chose to remain dry had to do the chicken dance since they were too “chicken” to hop into the waist-deep water.

A group of penguins came out to hop into the chilly water.

Sgt. Matt Plummer of the Altoona Police Department gave a safety presentation before 17 police department members and some of their families took the first plunge.

About 10 waves of participants took to the water, while the Geeseytown Community Fire Company and its water rescue team supervised the event.

“We count everybody going in and everybody coming out,” Fire Chief Dennis Estep said, noting the fire company is at every polar plunge held at the park because it has the only water rescue team in Blair County.

“So we come out here, cut the ice, man the ice before and during the plunge,” Estep said.

Rescue team members, who wore red ice suits and gray and yellow water rescue suits, take specialized training, including several different courses in water awareness, water rescue and ice rescue, Estep said.

Members of the Altoona Police Department were the first to plunge into the cold water.

During the plunge, Estep said there are multiple people from at least three different angles who give the OK to him before he says it is safe for the next round of plungers.

Wearing special clothing wasn’t limited to the rescue team members, though the costumes worn by participants weren’t water resistant.

First-time plunger Kelsea Mercier of Philipsburg showed off her sense of style dressed as an arctic mermaid.

Mercier, listed on the Special Olympics website as a top fundraiser with more than $1,500 raised, said she thinks the Special Olympics are amazing.

“And I know together, we can raise a whole lot more money,” she said.

Altoona Police after "taking the plunge."

Mercier said she was taking the plunge with event veterans who advised her that it’s actually better to wear less clothes because it is quicker to remove them and get into dry, warm clothes.

Kim Ritter was also a first-time participant.

“Jumping in the water was not as bad as you’d think, it’s the getting back up to the top and getting wet, frozen clothes off,” Ritter said.

Her plans for the rest of the day included a great lunch somewhere to celebrate the successful plunge and trying to stay warm.

People of all ages plunged into the icy waters, including a few kids held in the arms of their parents.

A group of polar plungers react to Canoe Creek Lake’s cold waters on Saturday. The temperature ranged from 16 to 20 degrees during the event.

Funds raised by participants and business sponsors cover travel and food expenses for athletes when they participate in USA and World games. Each plunger raised a minimum of $50 to jump in the lake, according to event officials.

“Our plunges are really, really important to Special Olympics Pennsylvania. They are ways to fundraise to give back to our athletes,” Heath said.

Saturday’s event was a success as more than $100,000 was raised, according to the Special Olympics website, with additional donations still arriving.

Participants walk back to the heated changing areas following the plunge.

Kelsea Mercier, pictured above in blue, plunged for the first time at this year’s event.

The cold water and ice is much more tolerable with special ice suits, used by emergency officials.

Department of Conservation and Natural Resources officials worked to clear surfaces of ice.

Geeseytown Community Fire Company kept the ice and plunge area safe for participants.

Attendees stayed warm on the beach area with a fire.

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