Plunge into 39-degree water supports Special Olympics
Estella Vacher stepped lightly and calmly down the sandy beach toward Kerr Lake. She was cloaked in a black witch costume, complete with a tall pointed hat.
And she was ready with a mischievous cackle.
With both feet in the 39-degree water, teeth clinched, she paused. About 20 yards behind her on the bank, nearly 100 were applauding and cheering.
The second annual Polar Plunge in support of Special Olympics Vance County was led off by one of its athletes Saturday morning. More than 50 followed Vacher, with a variety of entrances and exits from the chilly water.
They dove in, stepped in, and went under with belly flops and headfirst dives. Some tried to stay dry from the waste up. And a couple took tumbles before coming out of the water.
“I appreciate that. I really do,” Vacher said of the support before going in. “I don’t have to jump in deep, just put my toe in.”
And that she did — both feet. With final numbers still to be determined, an estimated $3,000 was expected to be generated from the primary fundraiser for the program.
“We’re trying to raise awareness, we’re trying to raise money,” said Julie Allred. She’s the program coordinator at the Henderson-Vance Recreation Department.
“We’re trying to get the community to know we’re these people that love this program this much that we’re willing to literally jump in the lake,” she said.
Special Olympics athletes in Vance County only need pay for a visit to the doctor to gain a medical form signature. Otherwise they participate at no cost, not even a participation fee.
“All of their T-shirts, uniforms, equipment, transportation, state fees for events, are all paid for through our fundraisers,” Allred said.
For Special Olympians, bocce ball starts in mid-August and runs to November. Then it’s basketball until March, and volleyball through June.
“It’s 8 and up, and most of our athletes are adults,” Allred said of their competitions. “It’s wonderful. It’s a long day of sitting around and waiting sometimes for games or competition, but when you see someone who has practiced so hard, and they stand on the podium and get this medal, and they start crying because they are so proud of themselves and are being recognized. I dare you to try to keep your eyes dry, too, because it is just an amazing experience to watch them compete and gain that self-confidence and have that fellowship with each other. It is a wonderful thing to go to these competitions. It is a lot of fun.”
Vacher said she has many medals. She competes in all three sports.
The turnout supporting her and the other two dozen or so athletes on Saturday brought excitement, anxieties and yes, even warmth. Air temperature was 34 degrees.
“When you’re sitting there, you’re thinking, ‘Oh, man, it’s going to be cold,’” said David Bennett, a member of the Darkside Motorcycle Club team. “But then you come out, it’s not so bad. After you do it, it’s just the whole knowing you’re doing it for a good cause and not just jumping in there for something else. It’s fun and something we look forward to.”
Bennett said the motorcycle club started in the past year. They’re based in Henderson and have people who enjoy riding and fellowship.
“There’s a lot of negatives that go with it and we’re trying to put a positive with it,” Bennett said of shedding the stereotype of motorcycle groups. “We wanted to come out here and do something good for the kids of Special Olympics. It’s a good cause and we’re going to do it every year that they have it.”
Most of the group participated last year with a differently named team. They even brought a pit bull, Zeus, who seemed hardly phased by the trip into the cold water.
Darkside’s 13 participants took the largest team award and helped them to the award for most money raised by a team. Cold Rush, a team originating out of the Henderson Police Department, earned the best team costume award.
Vacher received the award for best individual costume, and Cheyenne Gregory earned an award for individually raising the most money.
“It’s wonderful,” said Sgt. Angela Feingold, a Cold Rush team member and coach with the Special Olympics. “I love it. They’re always happy.”
She’s been volunteering at various stages of her life for more than 25 years, since getting her first taste at age 15 in Onslow County.
Teams were varied, from the National Honor Society at Southern Vance High School to the various auxiliaries of the Beacon Light Lodge to several more.
“This is my first time doing this,” said Julian Hernandez, who was with Jonathan Carlock and teacher Joe Sharrow going into the water for the Southern Vance team. “It’s for a good cause, to help out as best I can.”
All credited Sandra Wiggins for good-natured “arm twisting” to participate, but they were each also clearly excited and happy to be involved. And Wiggins was beaming.
“I think it’s cool, that’s why I volunteered to do it with them,” said Sharrow, who teaches U.S. history. “I wanted to encourage them to keep doing good things for the community.”
Lorelei Winkler, speaking excitedly between the balloons of her costume, said Eddie Hicks was a big reason Beacon Light, the ladies’ Goodwill Baxter Chapter and the young men’s Knights of Pythagoras were represented.
“I don’t care what your organization is, you have Eddie Hicks’ support,” Winkler said. “It’s amazing. One of our nieces has a daughter who is disabled. So, we’re very supportive. It’s exciting, and she’s a young one, so she’s going to come up in Special Olympics.
“Last year I did a cartwheel before I hit the water. When I finish, I’m going to run to the car and go home.”
And she wasn’t alone. But some remained on the beach, shivering and cheering others. Rescue and diving personnel were at hand, but there were no injuries or incidents.
Just fun and money donated for the Special Olympians.
“I’ve driven them to the competition a couple of times,” said Steve Osborne, the athletics director with the recreation department. “It kind of inspires you a little bit. If they can get out there and do as well as they do, there’s not a whole lot that we should complain about.”
Especially a cold Kerr Lake in February.
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