BY MARY GOFEN
On this cold winter day, the most fantastical cast of characters gathered on the shore of Lake Michigan. Superman and Batgirl, Thing One and Thing Two, Waldo (if you could find him amongst his two dozen impostors), Nintendo’s Mario and Luigi, a handful of giggly M&M’S were there, and some real-life heroes, too: Chicago firefighters, Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke, several TV news personalities, and professional soccer players from the Chicago Fire.
But in the midst of all this stood the real celebrities of the morning, the Chicago Special Olympics athletes and their families.
The 18th Annual Polar Plunge, which raises money for the Special Olympics, brought together at North Avenue Beach more than 5,000 people from all areas of the city and beyond, of all different ages, some with intellectual disabilities and some without.
Most of the “Plungers” dressed in costume for the occasion, many with an odd mix of practicality and flair. One woman put together an outfit comprised of a bikini, snow boots, and a winter hat, while others looked like they had stumbled upon the wrong event: the tuxedo and red a gown worn by one couple surely offered little protection from the 37-degree water. Tulle was a popular skirt choice among the ladies: colorful, festive, and with certain practical advantages—tulle lets the water drip away and is easy to slip out of after exiting the lake and toweling off in the warming tent.
Being the first to enter the water is an honor at Polar Plunge, and this year organizers chose three people with important roles in the event, including Justice Burke, a co-founder of the Chicago Special Olympics, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.
Justice Burke, sporting a red Special Olympics t-shirt over a black wetsuit, along with neon pink insulated water socks, jogged into the water grinning and stumbled out also wearing a brave smile.
Many in attendance were inspired by Justice Burke’s participation: “It was extremely special to know what she has accomplished, beyond being co-founder of Special Olympics, but also as a leader and a mom and (Illinois) Supreme Court Justice—and then jumping into really cold water!” says Kevin Magnuson, President of Chicago Special Olympics.
For some of the other Plungers, the whole event, which raised $1.6 million this year, felt like a party. Emma Burkhalter, an 18-year-old Special Olympics competitor, was one of them. Emma’s mother, Erin Folan, says that Emma especially loved hearing people cheer and that the cold water was simply part of the fun. Emma brought with her a team of 27 supporters, including six of her coaches, three fellow athletes, and lots of friends and family. Her team raised more than $8,000.
Emma is one of more than seven thousand children and adults with intellectual disabilities who train and compete in Chicago Special Olympics annually. She participates in nearly a dozen different sports and especially loves horseback riding, as well as swimming and snowshoeing—interests perfectly aligned with Polar Plunge.
But Emma’s involvement extends way beyond sports, says her mother. When her family joined the Special Olympics group at Independence Park more than eight years ago, it drastically changed their lives. Now, Emma smiles a lot, and her self-confidence is blossoming.
“They’re basically our second family,” Folan says. “Before, it was isolating. Now, we know all these families that are like us. Now she has friends—peers her age and ability level. And now she’s getting invited to birthday parties and sleepovers. It’s created a huge community. I don’t know where we’d be without them.”
The coaches at Independence Park and elsewhere do so more than coach sports. They take Emma to do her nails. They take groups of kids on overnight trips.
Magnuson says Emma’s case is not unusual—the organization’s impact extends well beyond sports competition for all its athletes: “Kids who participate have much more fulfilling lives. They feel a sense of purpose every day. And because of all their training they are just healthier humans. There is a direct correlation between Special Olympics and living longer, healthier lives.”
An important part of the organization’s mission is to empower members and their families. “It’s not just on the field or ice or athletic arena,” Magnuson says. “It’s in other areas of life. We use athletics as a vehicle to provide opportunities in the real world, through employment and other areas.”
At the same time, the organization directs its mission outwards, striving to create a more welcoming world for all, and hoping that individuals and businesses will open their eyes to the talents of people with intellectual disabilities.
“We want them to take steps to help Special Olympics athletes in the rest of their lives, in the real world,” Magnuson says. “Our mantra is ‘choose to include.’”
The organization plans a series of events to celebrate its 50th anniversary this summer. Events include the dedication of a new monument called the “Eternal Flame of Hope,” as well as a musical concert and family festival. Also taking place will be a Unified Cup soccer tournament that will feature teams from around the world comprised of players with and without intellectual disabilities.
For more information on Special Olympics 50th anniversary celebration, visit their website.
EVENT PHOTOS COURTESY OF CHICAGO PHOTO PRESS