As the snow came down Saturday morning, many Omahans were probably warm inside their homes.
But at least 550 people, many in costume, were shivering and shaking beside Cunningham Lake. They were preparing for the Polar Plunge, in which participants jump into the freezing waters as a benefit for Special Olympics athletes and programs.
The plunge has been held annually in six Nebraska cities — Omaha, Lincoln, Kearney, Scottsbluff, Columbus and Auburn — for more than 15 years, but it was Rene Garcia’s first time.
Garcia, 27, had participated in plunge events when he lived in Texas, but that didn’t compare with Cunningham Lake’s 12 to 18 inches of solid ice. The ice was so thick Saturday that, before the event, organizers had to cut a hole near the shore.
Dressed as a banana, Garcia was on a team with three co-workers from the U.S. Strategic Command. Garcia ran in first, followed by Phil Erickson, 34, dressed as a monkey, and zookeepers Heather Erickson, 37, and Tony Morales, 28.
The goal, Heather Erickson said, is to keep your mind off the cold.
“Once you get in, there is that shock value, but coming back out is not that bad,” she said.
Participants waded into the hole cut into the ice, then ran back out and into a heated tent to change into dry clothes.
The jumpers included people dressed as the minions from the animated “Despicable Me” movies. The 10-member team from U.S. Bank locations in the Omaha area were experienced plungers.
“You kinda go numb,” said Joe Sullivan, who completely submerged himself.
“Speed is the name of the game,” said Mike Buck, 24, wearing a Scooby Doo costume with his animal-themed team of pharmacy students from the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
It was Lane Fujii’s fourth Polar Plunge as part of the TD Ameritrade team, which had at least 150 participating employees.
Fujii said the water was colder this year because the lake was frozen. “It’s usually not that frozen,” he said.
Carolyn Chamberlin, president and CEO of Special Olympics Nebraska, said the event has grown each year in Omaha, with a larger turnout this year than in the past.
“Omaha has really embraced this event,” she said. “It’s a great way to spend a cold Saturday.”
She estimated that at least $125,000 had been raised.
Delisha Alexander, 24, was part of one TD Ameritrade team and conquered one of her fears when she dunked herself in the freezing water.
“It was awesome. It wasn’t even that bad,” she said. “I never even thought I would ever do something like this.”