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Article updated: 2/24/2013 6:39 PM

Party atmosphere at Fox Lake's Polar Plunge for Special Olympics

By Steve Zalusky

Vernon Hills Police Commander Pat Zimmerman was dressed for Mardi Gras, with beads adorning his neck and a crown perched on his head.

But it was a cold Sunday -- not Fat Tuesday -- for Zimmerman and others taking part in the 2013 Polar Plunge for Special Olympics of Illinois, held at Fox Lake's Lakefront Park.

A carnival atmosphere prevailed as people ran into the lake, submerged themselves and then raced back to the shore raise money for charity. Since the lake's icy shores were muddy and slushy, the event also had a bit of a Woodstock look to it.

More than 450 plungers participated -- up from last year's 320 participants. Among them were Stacey Firnback, of Ringwood, dressed in a penguin costume and her teammate, Ariel Lepe, of Round Lake Park, in a banana outfit.

Other plungers included Fox Lake Police Lt. Joe Gliniewicz, who was leading a Fox Lake Explorers team. The team members were smeared with brown, green and black camouflage paint and wore tutus.

Minutes after emerging from the water, Ashley Dautel, 18, of Buffalo Grove, was still wearing her princess crown.

"You can't really feel it at first at all, and then when you get out, you're like, 'Oh my feet are freezing,'" she said.

Amy Serafin, parks and recreation coordinator for the village of Fox Lake, said this year's fundraiser brought in more than $61,000, beating last year's total of $52,000.

"It raises funds for athletes that can't participate in mainstream sports," Serafin said.

Significant fundraisers included the Vernon Hills police team, which raised about $2,500.

Susan Foege, director of Special Olympics Area 13, said the money is used to run the competitions.

"This is huge for Special Olympics, due to the fact that we rely heavily on donations in order to run our program. They can compete in Special Olympics at no charge to them, and that would not be possible without events like this," she said.

It makes it possible for Alyssa Trafford, 12, of Wauconda, to win gold medals in five different sports: bocce ball, tennis, basketball, bowling and track and field, said her mother, Marciella Trafford.

"For me, it's all about the athletes like my daughter," said Marciella, whose daughter had a stroke when she was a newborn and has had a part of her brain removed.

"Now that we found Special Olympics, it's the best thing for her and the best thing for us," she said.

Both mother and daughter were among the brave plungers.

Sunday's Polar Plunge was a first for Jeanne Hendrickson, an assistant in Grayslake Community Consolidated School District 46, who was part of a Dist. 46 team.

"It's a little more chaotic than I thought it would be, and not as cold as I thought it would be," she said. "I think I was numb from the waist down. My feet are still numb, (but) I can wiggle them."

Hendrickson said she was coaxed into competing by a teacher with whom she works.

"I told her, 'That's too cold. I don't like to take cold showers.' But she said, 'It's for Special Olympics. Do it,'"

she said.

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