SHERIDAN — Each year the brave Polar Plunge jumpers find the courage to submerge in the icy waters of Lake DeSmet to kick off the New Year on a slightly mad note. Many remain humble about the jump, doing it for personal benefit and not bragging rights. The sense of togetherness and accomplishment abounds throughout the group.
The frigid figure featured on the Jan. 4, 2016, edition of The Sheridan Press, Nancy Wells, plans to jump again this year and encourages anyone else wanting to skip out on the event to reconsider.
“If you don’t do it, you don’t know if you’re alive or not,” Wells told The Sheridan Press.
Wells celebrated her 81st birthday. During a routine doctor’s appointment, she revealed her participation in the event, saying she plans to jump regardless, but wanted to know whether she had a better chance of living through it for another year.
“The doctors look at me and say ‘Are you nuts?’” Wells laughed.
Despite many reports of medical personnel advising the risks associated with jumping into cold water and lack of health benefits, jumpers claim to feel healthier and, at the least, alive.
“It gives you a real sense of some strange accomplishment,” Wells said.
The challenge of the dip proves enticing enough to come back year after year. Although her husband “won’t do it on a bet,” Wells’ daughter accompanied her last year. Her only hope this year is for a frozen-over spot so she will not have to endure another year of walking in instead of jumping as was done in previous years.
“Walking in is like walking to your death,” Wells said, explaining the terror of her age not allowing her to run and jump into the waters like other plungers.
“I don’t leap, I don’t stroll out,” Wells said.
At the start of Wells’ Polar Plunge adventure, a small hole just large enough for one person to descend into the depths of the water at a time served as the gateway to this wild tradition.
Mark Wells, Whitey Wells, Randy Stout, Eric Stout and Steve Carroll started DeSmet’s Plunge in 1987. Rob Forister and his brother, Jerry Pilch and another friend continue the tradition, but under no official organization.
“Part of it is tradition, but part of it is it’s really fun,” Forister said. “It’s a great way to start the New Year.”
He, his daughter and other convinced family members complete the Plunge every year in addition to helping folks out of the debilitating waters. When the second set of four men took over the operation, around 25 or 30 participated. Now, nearly 200 meet at 1 p.m. on Jan. 1 to take on the challenge.
Medical professionals advised readers of Time magazine and U.S. News not to jump if health conditions exist. Even the healthiest of persons should exercise caution when jumping. Strain on the heart and blood constriction shifting blood demand to inner organs causes not only discomfort, but a chance of heart attacks or arrhythmia.
Forister helps as much as possible, but posts a sign warning participants of jumping at their own risk.
“We jump in two at a time,” Forister said. “There’s usually four people that are pseudo lifeguards that are hanging around and help people out of the water.”
No major issues have occurred throughout the course of the 30-year event, and even though the men are not liable for any injuries or accidents, they stick around to help others.
“People are rushing over to go to that ladder and they can’t find the rungs so we stand there and help them out,” Forister said. “We hold out our hand and we help pull them out of the water. Then they grab their towel and warm up and talk about how fun it was.”
Both Wells and Forister encouraged all ages to come out and participate with the group. The event gathers positive, energetic people from 5 years old to those in their mid-80s and beyond. A sense of togetherness and a touch of crazy help make the event memorable and a great start to the year.
“I always tell people if you start
the new year by jumping in icy cold water and getting out, first of all it makes you feel really good and tingly and alive and also the rest of the year is just going to get better when you started by jumping in an icy lake in the middle of winter,” Forister said.