Though it’s only the second year teams from the Pittsburgh area have braved the cold waters of the Ohio River for the Special Olympics Polar Plunge, the event has managed to double in attendance, donations and perhaps even enthusiasm.
Though the water was reported to be 39 degrees, the sun shone brightly on Heinz Field on Sunday.
“You couldn’t have asked for a prettier day,” said Sandra Bradshaw of Bethel Park.
Crowds gathered early at the stadium in anticipation of the plunge that began at noon.
Of those attending, about 1,300 were on teams that jumped into the Ohio River from the Heinz Field boat launch to raise money for the Special Olympics.
By the week of the event, those teams had raised about $250,000. Some estimates immediately after the plunge added $30,000 to that total.
Last year’s event raised $131,000.
The top team this year, Pittsburgh Police Zone 6, raised $27,000.
The Pittsburgh Polar Plunge has already become one of the biggest in the state, according to Kraig Makohus, Special Olympics Western Pennsylvania development director.
“It’s a big town but everybody knows each other,” he said. “They want to support each other.”
The support of not only the “plungers”—those who raised money through pledges and rushed into the water—but others who teamed up with the Special Olympics, like radio station WDVE and Steelers legend Lynn Swann, the master of ceremonies, made the event a success.
“None of the others have anything else like this,” Makohus said. “These partnerships are big.”
Mark McDonald, of Moon Township, knows the importance of that as much as anyone—he had joined up with WDVE’s plunge team.
He, his fiancée Jodi Felton, and their friends Ron and Brandee Kantrowitz, all of Moon, watched from the deck of the Gateway Clipper as teams wearing everything from bikinis to polar bear costumes stood poised on the bank as Swann counted down from the top of the ship.
“Just the fact of doing something for somebody else just drives me more than anything,” said McDonald, who has relatives with special needs.
Their names were written on his back. The names of those who pledged support were written on his chest.
Minutes later, he rushed to the river bank himself, where he plunged with the rest of his team, red, white and blue hardhat gleaming in the sun.
Also in colorful attire were Mary Spagnoli of Leetsdale and Leigh Davis of Kennedy Township.
Dressed in hula skirts, bikini tops and leis, the two florists at the Leetsdale and Wexford Giant Eagle stores comprised a team of two, “The Flower Girls.”
One of her favorite things about the event, Davis said, was knowing she had and Spagnoli had raised money to help people.
This was the second year the two attended, but it won’t be the last.
“We’ll be back,” Spagnoli said. “We’re trying to get more team members.”
Asked if they were cold, the pair, who were wrapped in thick bathrobes after their dip, said no.
“It’s worse before you get in the water,” Davis said.
“It worse when you get IN,” Spagnoli added.
John McCurry, a Moon Township resident who works at the Ross/West View EMS, agreed with Spagnoli’s assessment.
He said the water was cold, but that won’t deter him from another plunge.
This event, for him, was a warm up for another event in January. There, he said, he’ll raise money for his 9-year-old son, Steven, who is at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC being treated for leukemia.
The Ross-Westview EMS team that he was with raised $1,000 for the Special Olympics.
For Todd Plunkett of the Baldwin EMS, the plunge wasn’t what he expected.
“They told us it would be much colder than it was,” he said. “It wasn’t that bad.”
He and his team, made up of the Clairton police department, Allegheny County 911, Robinson EMS and several other groups, raised $3,500.
“We’re already planning,” he said. “Next year, we’re going to raise more money and have more members.”
That’s what organizers like to hear.
Money raised at the plunge supports the Special Olympics programs, which help children and adults with intellectual disabilities improve their physical fitness and confidence through free athletic training.
Kelly Kochamba, community outreach specialist for the FBI, which helped put the Pittsburgh Polar Plunge together, attributed the growth of the event from last year to this year to word of mouth.
“The more people hear about it, the more people want to do it,” she said.
Part of the fun of the plunge, according to Austin Rovito of Peters Township, was being able to make people smile—people like his sister Taylor, who has Down syndrome.
He was part of the The Great Bear Skin Plunge team, which his friend, Charlie Wonsettler of Scenery Hill, organized.
When Rovito learned about the team, he had to be a part of it.
“What we did (is nothing) compared to what they’ve been through,” he said. “This isn’t just about us jumping in the river.”