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Taking the Plunge

For the third year in a row, Special Olympics chills out in the Mississippi River.



Despite much advice to the contrary, I have jumped in the Mississippi River. In the middle of winter.

And I'm not the only one.

For the past three years, people have been jumping in the Mississippi as part of the Polar Bear Plunge. The event, which is in its 10th year in Memphis, benefits the Special Olympics.

"It's not like a run, or a golf tournament, or a gala," says Lisa Taylor, area director of Special Olympics Greater Memphis. "It's just kind of a wacky event. You're running into the water and running out. People think it's really neat."

When the Polar Bear Plunge began, it was held at Shelby Farms' Patriot Lake, but a few years ago, organizers decided to make the event a little larger, add a chili cook-off, and move it to Mud Island.

"I did it one year at Patriot Lake. I got in to about my knees and it was cold," Taylor says.

About 150 people took the plunge last year, and Taylor is hoping for about 200 at this year's event on February 7th. But participation will probably depend on the weather that day. Participants can wear just about whatever they want, but they can't wear wet suits.

"Last year, the weather ended up being beautiful. It was in the 60s — the water was in the 20s — but it was really nice," Taylor says.

I participated in the Polar Bear Plunge two years ago on a day when the thermometer registered in the 30s. Armed with extra towels, multiple layers of clothing, and a few of my colleagues — I thought it would be a fun bonding experience — we braved the freezing cold to run down the Mud Island boat dock, jump into the harbor, and then run out again.

The whole thing took perhaps 17 seconds, if that, but it was an adrenaline-fueled 17 seconds.

Oh, sure, before we plunged, there were mentions of us pulling a Jeff Buckley and cautions about the pollution, but it was worth it. (I am not entirely sure, however, that all my colleagues would agree.)

"A lot of people do it for the cause," Taylor says, "but a lot do it because it's something different. How many people can say, I jumped in the Mississippi River?"

Well, I can say it, and I can also say that I did it completely wrong.

Taylor also has some tips for potential plungers, er, jumpers: Make sure you bring a change of clothes and a towel. And you have to wear shoes. (C'mon, people, we're talking about the Mississippi River here. Do you really want to brave it without footwear?)

She also advises that jumpers dress in their wackiest costumes (there's a prize). And try the chili.

You want to know my advice? Layers are not your friend.

When I jumped, I wore a bathing suit layered with tights, yoga pants, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a short-sleeved Flyer T-shirt (which I ended up giving to a dedicated reader).

Sure, it kept me warm(ish) while we were waiting on the dock, teeth chattering, but the second we jumped in the water, ice needles started stinging every single inch of my body that had the misfortune to be in the water.

And when I jumped back out of the water, my many layers — especially the tights — brought those ice needles back on dry land with me.

You know how chilly it is when you get out of a pool in 80-degree weather? Multiply that by 1,000.

A friend of mine wore shorts to the plunge and before we jumped, I thought he was crazy. Afterward, though, I saw the brilliance in his plan. When he jumped out, he didn't have cold, wet layers clinging to him.

Here is the strange thing: Once I was out of the water, out of those horrid tights and wrapped in my towel, I suddenly didn't feel cold anymore. Maybe I had been so cold that, relatively, being less cold felt warm. Who knows?

My other piece of advice: Bring friends, the more the better. You're going to want a group of friends to jump with, people you can commiserate and be nervous with. (I remember one person in my group hoping she wouldn't slip and fall as she ran down the boat dock in her bikini.)

Most importantly, you're also going to want to bring friends who aren't taking the plunge. These people can stand on the dock and hold up a warm towel for you to run into. Trust me on this.

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