Record 300-plus take Lake Tahoe Polar Plunge |

Record 300-plus take Lake Tahoe Polar Plunge

Jonah M. Kessel / Sun News ServiceENLARGE

ZEPHYR COVE ” First there was the wind, then the cold and barely any sun to speak of. But it was the bodies ” at least 300 of them ” who jumped into Lake’s Tahoe’s chilly waters that, literally, took breaths away.

It was an unusual if not downright frigid way to usher in spring at Lake Tahoe, all in the name of a very worthy cause. Saturday’s sixth annual Polar Plunge to benefit the Special Olympics was by far the largest cold-water swim at the lake in recent memory.

The event drew participants from Lake Tahoe, Carson City, Fallon, Reno, Sacramento, Davis and San Francisco, who sprinted, jumped, crawled and swam in Lake Tahoe’s famed waters to raise money for summer and winter sports programs offered to those with disabilities.

Nearly 30 teams collected about $40,000 from sponsors to participate in the swim. The only thing required was that team members had to put more than their toes into the 39-degree lake.

“It’s the initial blast that gets you,” said Rob Hembree, a South Lake Tahoe Fire Department captain who was joined by fellow fire captain Karl Koeppen, Chief Lorenzo Gigliotti and firefighter Mike Mileski. The department members jumped into Tahoe’s chilly waters for a minute-long icy bath before getting out.

Armed with a snorkel, Adam Turner of Heavenly Sports was part of the SSV Crew, organized by Heather Fenton of Heavenly Sports Quick Silver store.

There’s no other different way to spend the first weekend of spring than a jump in Lake Tahoe, Turner said.

“Besides, the Special Olympics is a good, worthy cause,” he said. “Heavenly Sports continues to donate equipment for the ski program.”

Sipping on hot cups of coffee to maintain warmth before and after the event, the Nevada Parole and Probation team, dressed in black and white-striped jail jumpsuits, were among scores of people who came in costumes.

Other first timers at the event were Mike Dietrich and Christine Resch, who represented a team from the Greater Nevada Credit Union, which dressed as pirates for the plunge.

Dietrich said he had “no idea” what he was getting into, but wanted to give it a try because the Special Olympics is “a great organization” that the credit union continues to support.

Not quite in a full-on shiver, Resch plopped into Lake Tahoe with a stuffed parrot on her shoulder for good luck.

The experience, she said, was remarkably cold but “well worth it,” she said.

Team Tahoe Olympian Melissa Ahrens gave her fellow swimmers some bold advice, with this year being the sixth Polar Plunge she’s entered.

“They’ll be cold, but if they go in and swim and come back and get a towel they’ll get warm,” she said.

Returning to Tahoe from Idaho where he took home three gold medals in the Special Olympic Winter Olympic Games, South Shore resident Phillip Sturgeon was well prepared for the plunge.

“Each time you go in, it’s a different experience, but the cold stays the same,” he said.

Fellow Team Tahoe member Gordon Bonar added “when you’re in, it’s cold, that’s for sure. But you warm up a bit when your body’s under.”

Jody Filgo, who coordinated the Tahoe Polar Plunge with Elaine Glasser six years ago, said Saturday’s turnout was “better than I ever would have imagined. People have come from all over for this. It is a real team effort.”

Swimmers joined friends and family members afterward aboard the M.S. Dixie for lunch and to warm up.

Saturday’s Polar Plunge was the fourth one this year for Special Olympics. Similar fundraisers were held in San Francisco, Fresno and Fort Bragg.

The fundraisers were coordinated with a sense of urgency, as corporate donations to the organization have plummeted this year, said Kirsten Cherry, spokeswoman for the Special Olympics of Northern California and Northern Nevada.

With an annual budget of around $7 million, this year’s Special Olympics operating budget was cut to about $4.5 million, in large part because of the recession.

But Saturday’s turnout was a milestone for the Tahoe Polar Plunge. Last year’s event drew 40 swimmers and raised about $20,000. This year, the event made close to $40,000.

“Even in this economy, to see this many people come out and raise money through individual donations, is amazing,” Cherry said. “We’re so grateful to those who support us in any way they can. Today’s turnout was amazing.”

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