Hundreds take a dip for a good cause at 16th Annual Polar Bear Plunge in Waukegan

 
 
Updated 1/1/2015 4:36 PM
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  • Eric Smalley of Winthrop Harbor, left, high-fives his son Josh Deboer of Ann Arbor, Michigan, as they enter the frigid water at the Waukegan Beach in full golf regalia during the 16th Annual Polar Bear Plunge hosted by the Waukegan Park District. This is the sixth year the father and son combo have taken the plunge.

      Eric Smalley of Winthrop Harbor, left, high-fives his son Josh Deboer of Ann Arbor, Michigan, as they enter the frigid water at the Waukegan Beach in full golf regalia during the 16th Annual Polar Bear Plunge hosted by the Waukegan Park District. This is the sixth year the father and son combo have taken the plunge. Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Dustin Pearson of North Chicago and Jennifer Burk of Mundelein celebrate having survived the 16th annual Polar Bear Plunge hosted by the Waukegan Park District and the City of Waukegan at the Waukegan Beach.

      Dustin Pearson of North Chicago and Jennifer Burk of Mundelein celebrate having survived the 16th annual Polar Bear Plunge hosted by the Waukegan Park District and the City of Waukegan at the Waukegan Beach. Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Participants faced cold temperatures but sunny skies as they took to the water for the 16th annual Polar Bear Plunge, hosted by the Waukegan Park District and the City of Waukegan at the Waukegan Beach.

      Participants faced cold temperatures but sunny skies as they took to the water for the 16th annual Polar Bear Plunge, hosted by the Waukegan Park District and the City of Waukegan at the Waukegan Beach. Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

The wind chill was zero, but a bright sun and clear sky Thursday made it a perfect morning for a charitable dip in Lake Michigan at Waukegan's municipal beach.

That was the New Year's Day mission for hundreds of people in varying degrees of dress who steadied themselves before taking the 16th annual Polar Bear Plunge for charity. The "reason for freezin'" benefits the Special Recreation Services of Northern Lake County.

"It's kind of a crazy event, but we're so grateful for everybody who comes out to do it," said Kari Robinson, special recreation supervisor for the Waukegan Park District, a co-sponsor with the city. "It's our biggest fundraiser."

Contributions provide scholarships, outfit special recreation athletes with uniforms and equipment and cover the cost of entry fees and travel expenses.

Nearly 200 people had preregistered, and including walk ups, 341 people signed up for a bracing plunge in 34-degree water. City crews cleared a launching area on the beach for a sprint into the lake and also created a shallow pool just offshore.

They included barechested men. women in bikinis and other folks in costume, including one person dressed as the Statue of Liberty and another as a gingerbread man. Most took the first route and many ventured about 75 yards out to greet rescue swimmers with high-fives.

"Overall, this is one of the better years. Not as cold, not as windy," Robinson said. "Last year was a nightmare."

Donna DiNicola and her husband John, a retired Waukegan firefighter, were participating in their 14th polar plunge.

"That says something about not learning your lesson," joked John DiNicola, still warm having just arrived.

"It cleanses the soul," added Donna.

The registration tent was a scene of contrasts, as observers bundled against the elements accompanied the dippers shedding layers in preparation for the plunge. Words of encouragement were mixed with opinion.

"She's nuts," Renee Larbi, of Des Plaines said of her 15-year-old daughter, Sabrina, who waited patiently dressed in a hoodie over her swimsuit. "She was up the whole night begging me, so here we are."

Sabrina said she "heard about it and just wanted to try and do it." Afterward, she declared it a success.

"It was good but my feet are really numb," she said.

Renee Larbi heard about the event from her friend Kim Lobitz of Grayslake. Lobitz had taken the polar plunge about 10 years ago and returned with her 9-year old son, Jackson.

"I asked him a while ago if he wanted to do it and he said, `Sure,' " she said.

Barbara Cowart, also of Grayslake, had done it for five years running but skipped last year. "It's for a good cause," she said.

Her boyfriend, Pat Joy, of Antioch, sipped coffee while she prepared to register.

"I think it's great, but I ain't doing it," he said.

Jim Fry, 47, of Wildwood, who has participated all 16 years, wouldn't miss it.

"I'm like, `Cool. I'm there.' Every year since then it's been a planned event," he said.

The early childhood teacher and Special Olympics coach was given a purple tutu to wear by supporters. But it wouldn't fit, so he wore it as headgear. After the plunge, Fry said it was a great way to start the year.

"It was awesome," he said. "I feel good now."

John DiNicola said his dip went well.

"The finish is always better than the beginning," he said. "There's always a feeling of accomplishment."

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