‘Cold day, but warm hearts’ — Lightfoot leads thousands diving into Lake Michigan for Polar Plunge
After going virtual last year, a shivering throng was back again to take the plunge Sunday at North Avenue Beach.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot led the charge Sunday as thousands bore frigid temperatures and unforgiving winds while streaming into Lake Michigan for the return of the Polar Plunge.
“Cold day, but warm hearts,” Lightfoot said to the crowd gathered at North Avenue Beach. “Warm hearts for our athletes, for their families and the life-changing experiences that Special Olympics has been giving to residents of the city for decades and decades to come.”
Carolyn Daley, niece of former Mayor Richard M. Daley and the president of Special Olympics Chicago and Special Children’s Charities, noted that roughly 4,000 plungers had signed up for the Chicago event, which benefits those causes. Besides North Avenue Beach, there were people taking the plunge at 24 other locations throughout Illinois. By Sunday morning, Carolyn Daley said, $1.6 million already had been raised this year.
In 2020, the Polar Plunge was one of the last major events the city hosted before the COVID-19 outbreak brought life to a standstill. Last year’s event was held virtually due to the pandemic, though some participants still took a dip in Lake Michigan.
Sunday marked a jovial return to form.
Carter Sanders, a 39-year-old from the South Side, has competed in the Special Olympics since 1998. He joined Lightfoot and a host of other city officials to kick off the event.
“I’m looking forward to the plunge to raise awareness for Special Olympics for athletes like myself,” said Sanders, who has Asperger’s Syndrome.
He has won a Special Olympics gold medal in flag football and qualified for the Downstate games multiple times. And while he wasn’t too concerned about the cold, Sanders said he had no plans to stick around in the water for too long: “I’m just trying to force myself to run.”
Lightfoot and Sanders were joined by a host of local celebrities, including the cast of NBC’s “One Chicago” and actor Chris Witaske, whose “Chicago Party Aunt” Twitter persona was adapted into a Netflix series last year.
Before the event, Witaske joked around with WGN meteorologist Tom Skilling, who had the honor of taking the lake’s temperature before the plunge. The thermometer read 42 degrees, but Skilling estimated it was actually around 37 degrees.
Skilling and Witaske became fast friends after the beloved weatherman learned he was a fixture of the Netflix series. Before wading in the water, Witaske tried to goad Skilling into hitting the lake.
“I want Tom to know it’s not too late. He can still jump in if he wants,” Witaske said.
Skilling demurred, recalling that he “blacked out” after jumping into a body of cold water when he attended a YMCA camp in New York’s Catskill Mountains.
“That’s what I have to look forward to,” responded Witaske, whose online alter-ego is no stranger to blacking out, albeit under more intoxicating circumstances.
Shermann “Dilla” Thomas, whose TikTok videos on Chicago history have placed him in the national spotlight, jokingly questioned his decision to take the plunge ahead of the event.
“What did I agree too [sic],” Thomas wrote alongside photos with Witaske and Skilling.
A self-styled urban historian who often highlights the city’s vast contributions, Thomas noted in an interview that the Special Olympics are “a Chicago invention” as he reflected on the importance of the games.
“It’s all about inclusion and showing that everybody has value,” Thomas told the Sun-Times. “Before the Special Olympic games, a certain segment of the American population didn’t get a chance to celebrate itself nationally.
“And now, we all look forward to the Special Olympics as just another example of Chicago dopeness.”