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Boxers Luis Mateo (center left) and Fres Oquendo (center right) take the Polar Bear Plunge on Saturday. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Subzero windchill no match for Polar Bear Plungers: ‘This is worse than a fight’

Single-digit temperatures and subzero windchills couldn’t stop hundreds of Chicagoans from taking a Saturday afternoon dip in Lake Michigan for this year’s Polar Bear Plunge.

More than 300 participants met at Oak Street Beach for the 17th annual plunge, though this year’s event was a little colder than usual.

With the temperature at a less-than-pleasant 7 degrees when the first plungers stepped in, the charitable event went off without a hitch after some initial worry that it would be canceled because of the extreme cold.

“It’s going to be harder than training for the world championship,” said heavyweight boxer Fres Oquendo, who joined Illinois Boxing Hall of Famer Luis Mateo for their first plunge.

“This is worse than a fight,” Mateo said. “I’ll fight anytime.”

The hundreds of brave — or crazy — souls who jumped into the lake were raising money for three local families in need. That’s been the case ever since the event’s founder, Brian Marchal, started the tradition in 2003 to raise money for his cousin’s husband, who needed a double lung transplant.

Today, Marchal’s popular dive into the lake came full circle when a young boy walked through the water four years after he received a heart transplant using the money raised at that year’s Polar Plunge.

“For him to even talk about getting into the water was just awesome,” Marchal said. “For us to be able to see families go through this kind of stuff and see how our money gets spent, and then have those families come back… I love it. It’s the reason we do this.”

Frank So, a nine-time veteran of the Polar Plunge, said the stories of families getting second chances are what motivate him to keep participating.

But that doesn’t mean some fun can’t be had at the same time.

“It felt like home,” So joked about the freezing-cold water after skipping last year’s event. “Having this cold weather does justify that you’re either crazy or you’re just having a good time out there.”

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Another battle-tested plunger, 28-year-old Essex Davison, said the cold doesn’t bother him anymore after eight years’ worth of dives. His hair, on the other hand, would probably take a few hours to defrost, he said.

“I just go in and try to spread as much energy as I can to get the crowd hyped and get them moving,” said Davison, wearing a T-shirt and light jacket with others around him bundled up. “I love it. I couldn’t ask for a better city to be a part of.”

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