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Cold water, warm hearts

By Steve Zoski, Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 23, 2013

On the more temperate Saturdays in the fall, football games in the Big House routinely attract more than 100,000 people. But on a chilly February morning, a much smaller, less-clothed crowd convened to raise about $130,000 for Special Olympics Michigan by jumping into pools of freezing water.

“Hail to the Victors” played through the stadium's speaker system Saturday morning as the first ever Polar Bear Plunge began. Cheers and camera flashes emanated from the bleachers as a crowd of over 300 plungers-to-be gathered in the locker rooms to hear pep talks from head football coach Brady Hoke and former head coach Lloyd Carr. Moments later, lines of people trotted down the iconic tunnel and under the “Go Blue” banner wearing costumes, bearing skin and braving the cold before finally taking their turns plummeting into two inflated swimming pools set up along the visitors’ sideline.

United State Coast Guard volunteers worked as lifeguards, helping people quickly escape out of the frigid water into the refuge of a white towel’s embrace.

Sitting at a long table in between the two pools, judges Hoke and Carr, WDIV sportscaster Bernie Smilovitz and Ann Arbor Police Chief John Seto observed as people made the plunge. Awards were given in categories that included “Best Jump,” “Best Costume” and “Most Michigan Gear” in an indoor reception following the event.

Costumes included two University hospital employees in Ghostbusters gear, a plunger in full football pads and a troupe dressed up as the Spartans from“300.”

In Hoke’s locker-room speech, which was displayed on Michigan Stadium's jumbotron screens, he said participants were valiantly helping a great cause and embodying Michigan strength.

“This is Michigan: We’re physically stronger, mentally tougher than our opponent,” Hoke said. “We thrive under pressure and adversity. We lead by example in every situation, understanding that preparation is the key to our success. We do it right the first time, all the time, and we never quit.”

“As Coach Carr talked about, this is for an unbelievable cause, and an attempt for greatness in the greatest stadium in the nation,” he said.

“I probably would have plunged if I had known more about it … I was looking for the big chicken outfit.”

Hoke was in charge of looking out for the plunger wearing the most Michigan gear.

“That was pretty easy for me,” Hoke said. “I’m not looking for style or dives, or anything like that. I’ve seen a guy who was pretty much covered head to toe, so that was our winner.”

Smilovitz, the WDIV sportscaster, was given the task of determining for the most unique plunger.

“They just told me (to look out for) whatever was creative and different; and that’s sort of the story of my life, creative and different, so I’m in, this was right up my alley, perfectly," Smilovitz said.

“I thought that the ones that had the least amount of costumes were the most creative ones,” Smilovitz continued. “If you’re going into the polar plunge you would think that you’d bundle, but the ones that didn’t are the ones that really impressed me.”

Kim Purdy, the chief marketing & development officer of Special Olympics Michigan, said the inaugural Big House event was definitely unique.

“The athletic department has just been incredible to work with,” Purdy said. “They’ve been incredibly organized, it’s just an amazing thing for our organization.”

Coast Guard Sgt. Kevin Wesner said his dive team volunteers for Special Olympics’ plunges every year.

“It’s the biggest one we’ve ever done," Wesner said. “Great event.”

Wesner said the water in the pools was forty degrees Fahrenheit when pumped from a fire hydrant, but the many bags of ice dropped in the water likely made it even cooler.

“They just want out quick."

-Follow Steve Zoski on Twitter at @z0ski.