February is not normally a time when people are pulling out their swim trunks and beach towels, but at the University of Montana on Saturday, Missoulians donned their summer wear to take an icy swim for a good cause.
Roughly 100 people took turns jumping into a pool of ice-cold water set up on the Oval at UM on Saturday as part of the 15th annual Super Grizzly Dip, an event that raises money and awareness for Montana Special Olympics athletes. It’s all part of what organizers call “Freezin’ for a Reason.”
The jumpers had all raised pledge money to take the plunge. People not brave enough, or perhaps foolish enough, to dive into the water could register instead as “chickens,” still raising money without having to get wet.
Detective Jason Johnson of the Missoula County Sheriff’s Department is one of the organizers of the event. Johnson is also the assistant director of Montana’s branch of the Law Enforcement Torch Run, a group that raises money and spreads awareness for Special Olympics athletes.
In the last few years, Johnson said the Torch Run has raised more than $500,000. More than 2,000 Montanans take part in Special Olympics sporting events each year.
“The money is great, but the awareness of these athletes and what they do is really important as well,” he said.
Johnson said he was relieved the dip was not happening a few weekends earlier, when Missoula was in the middle of temperatures in the negative teens.
“The plunge in Great Falls this year happened in conditions where it was about negative 32 degrees outside,” he said.
First to jump were Sergeant Mark Horner of the Missoula Police Department and Ron Hooper, CEO of Neptune Aviation Services, the primary sponsor of the event.
Horner, in his sixth year taking the plunge, lived up to his “Ice Man” nickname by dumping 20 bags of ice cubes in the water before he and Hooper leaped in. Horner raised more than $12,000 in pledges for his dip this year.
Missoula search and rescue volunteers Cindy Super and Jim Salyers donned insulated ice rescue dry suits, wading and waiting in the pool to help divers climb up the ladder to get out.
Jade Byington of Missoula was at the Grizzly Dip for her seventh year, having raised more than $1,100 in pledges. She said she always likes the event because the money raised stays with local athletes.
“The jump used to be held at the YMCA, so we could jump and then run inside and get in a hot tub, but I like it here,” Byington said.
After taking the plunge, divers could enjoy a warm cup of hot cocoa with a bowl of chili and a piece of cornbread. Pins were handed out to people who were taking part in the Grizzly Dip for the fifth, 10th, or 15th times.
Jumpers stood on the back of a Montana Army National Guard truck with the pool just below them. Some jumped in with abandon, while others hemmed and hawed, or tried to slowly lower themselves into the water.
Missoula police officer Truman Tolson braved the cold for an 11th time Saturday. He said helping the athletes is what keeps him coming back every year. As far as the jump itself goes, Tolson said while it’s very cold, the best strategy is just to get up and get it done quickly.
“There’s been colder years. One year, we had it at one of the public pools, and we had to break through the ice on top before we could jump,” Tolson said.
Even UM mascot Monte climbed up to have a go, stripping off a white cotton robe before diving into the pool in a pair of Superman boxer shorts.
Members of the crowd who stood too close to the pool found themselves sprayed with water every time a particularly exuberant jumper took their turn.
This is the second year the Grizzly Dip has been held at UM, and the first year it was held on the Oval. The event is one of 10 “Polar Plunges” organized by the Law Enforcement Torch Run and held across Montana every year.
“I expect to see even more student involvement in the years to come. We had about 100 plungers this year, I think we can get that many in just students alone,” Johnson said.
After all the plungers had jumped, organizers announced a preliminary total $35,000 had been raised for Montana Special Olympics teams and athletes.