WINTHROP — Jumping in is always the hardest part of swimming. The cold water, even on the warmest days, can be shocking. So what is like when you’re jumping into a lake covered by nearly 3 feet of ice?
“It took my breath away,” said Readfield’s Jenna Lewis, one of about 60 women, men and children who jumped into Maranacook Lake for Saturday’s first-ever Ice Out Plunge to support Special Olympics Maine. “It wasn’t as bad afterwards. I almost want to do it again.”
The plunge was organized as a fundraiser for the Maine Law Enforcement Torch Run, which supports Special Olympics Maine, said Charle Clark, of the Winthrop Police Department, who helped organize the event. Clark said the first-year event raised $12,000 during pre-registration and brought in thousands more during Saturday’s open registration.
“If 60 people can raise over $15,000, that’s pretty good,” Clark said.
Law enforcement agencies across the country have organized such plunges for years, but Saturday’s was the first ever to take place in Maine. The plunge was scheduled for early April because that is when the ice on Maranacook Lake typically recedes from shore. In this long winter of growing discontent, however, the ice at the beach across from the American Legion is still nearly 3 feet thick.
“Even the people who have been around here years and years say they haven’t seen the ice hang on like this,” Clark said. “The ice near the shore is frozen all the way to the sand.”
Forced to improvise, organizers brought in an excavator and several game wardens, who cut a large hole in the ice about 50 feet from shore. The large chunks of ice cast to the side offered an ominous reminder of the water’s bone-crushing cold. The water was about 5 feet deep under the hole, and the Warden Service had divers in the water to help plungers who needed a hand.
Winthrop firefighter Andrew Bellegarde, who took part in a polar dip while stationed in Germany during his military service, said there are no pleasant surprises; the water is every bit as cold as you’d expect. Those who have taken part in polar dips in the ocean said the water temperature on Saturday actually felt colder.
“Get in and out as quick as possible,” Bellegarde said when asked for a dip tip. “Don’t think about it. Jump in and jump out.”
Lewis took the plunge to support her friend Tasia Lewis, a Winthrop native who has spent considerable time on Maranacook Lake but had never been underneath its ice.
“We’ve fished on it all winter,” Tasia Lewis said before the plunge. “I have to be at a wedding by 1 p.m. It’s going to be quick and cold.”
“Hopefully, I’ll keep all my limbs,” Jenna Lewis joked.
About 60 people took dips, but more than 100 others lined the shore in support of those who got wet. Many gathered for lunch afterward at the American Legion across the street.
“When Charle (Clark) came up with the idea, we jumped on it,” said Don Chase, of the American Legion. “It’s a community event. Our post is always meant to be community-oriented first.”
While the plunge itself was rife with funny costumes and laughter, the cause — supporting athletic competition for men, women and children who are intellectually challenged — is serious business to those who attended.
“It’s the Special Olympics,” said Corey Witham, of Thomaston, who came with a handful of friends who belong to the Central Maine Defenders motorcycle group. “We try to do as much as we can for the Special Olympics.”
Tasia Lewis took the plunge to support her aunt, Laura Lucas, who has an intellectual disability. Before the plunge Lucas worked the packed dining room inside the Legion, greeting old friends and making new, before making her way to her niece’s side. “She’s like the town mayor in Winthrop,” Tasia Lewis said. “She’s the most amazing person I know. It’s worth every bit of cold water.”
Maura Bragg, of Sidney, and three of her friends were dressed in black T-shirts, tights and tutus. The shirts announced the women were “Ashlyn’s Angels with Attitude.” Ashlyn, Bragg’s 2-year-old daughter, has an intellectual disability and epilepsy. Bragg said her daughter probably never will never play varsity sports or be in the Olympics, but because of Special Olympics her daughter will hopefully know the joy of competition and striving toward a goal.
“She’s a tough little girl and she can do anything,” Bragg said. “We want to show her we can do anything, too.”
Jumping into ice-cold water is, in many ways, the ideal fundraiser for Special Olympics, Bragg said.
“It’s all about mind over matter,” she said. “That’s what it’s like to have a special-needs child and probably what it’s like to be special-needs.”
Craig Crosby — 621-5642[email protected]Twitter: @CraigCrosby4