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5,000 Polar Plungers scream in delight, shock, glee at North Avenue Beach

Over 5,000 people took part in the 18th Annual Polar Plunge Sunday, March 4, at North Avenue Beach. | Erin Brown/Sun-Times

Anyone standing blindfolded on North Avenue Beach on Sunday might have been smirking one moment and terror-stricken the next by a stream of high-pitched screaming, heavy breathing, giddy laughter and the type of yelling that precedes an infantry charge.

Such is the soundtrack of a polar plunge.

More than 5,000 people jumped into Lake Michigan to benefit Special Olympics Chicago. Fundraising for the groups 18th annual plunge — which runs through March — has raised $1.6 million.

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Costumes donned by participants included South Side Irish Parade Queen, Oscar winners, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Hulk Hogan, jelly fish and Viking invaders.

Compared to past years, when ice had to be removed from the shoreline to make room for plungers, conditions were favorable: sunny, 37-degree water and 42-degree air temperatures.

But the consensus was solid: Still cold. Very cold.

“I’m of an age where I shouldn’t be doing this,” said Eileen Taylor, 85, of Edison Park, who wore sunglasses shaped like shamrocks and a green feather boa. “But it was worth it for the kids. Plus, I get to spend the day with my children and grandchildren.”

A group of softball players from Mother McAuley High School, football players from Marist High School and a contingent from the Chicago Teachers Union — including Vice President Jesse Sharkey — all took the plunge.

Jeff Manuel and his wife, M.J. Garnier, wore tuxedos.

For years, it was Manuel and his good friend Keith Pamper who plunged in their finery.

But Pamper, a Shed Aquarium diver, died last summer.

“This year I’m doing it in his honor,” Garnier said.

Twelve aldermen signed up to dive, but only six went through with it, said Ald. Matt O’Shea, who lead the aldermanic charge.

Ald. Ed Burke got his feet wet as he waded in to escort his wife, Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke, from the water.

“I cheated,” Anne Burke, a founder of Special Olympics, said with a laugh. “I wore a wetsuit.”

This year’s plunge may have lacked the superstar celebrity punch that in years past included Lady Gaga, Vince Vaughn and Jimmy Fallon, but there were some famous faces in the mix.

“Chicago Fire” stars David Eigenberg and Miranda Mayo took the plunge.

“Every year it gets a little bit colder, every year it gets a little bit harder,” said Eigenberg, who’s participated for the past six years.

“It’s like children, you know. The first one’s fun. The second one is a little harder, and then I stopped and said no more. So I should have stopped after the second year,” he joked.