February 2008 was freezing in Kentucky. It was also a time when I rediscovered some moldy scraps of feelings that had been lying dormant for years, held in check by those pesky everyday realities of ambition, stress, and anxiety…those things that appear to be important in our journey, but really aren’t. I rediscovered how great it feels to do something to help others who will never know what I did.
One of my daughters, in addition to being a newly minted college graduate and veterinary technician, was also a bartender-waiter-manager at Mellow Mushroom. She and some of her friends there, being carefree, adventurous, and possessing the “careless abandon of youth”, had decided to participate in the Polar Bear Plunge to help raise money for Special Olympics.
Naturally I cautioned her about the foolishness of plunging into an icy pool in the middle of winter, although secretly I was proud of her commitment and her willingness to be bold. Then two days before the event, several teammates got cold feet and, for some totally illogical reason…I offered to plunge with them.
To help raise a little money I turned to my large email address book at work in a desperate attempt to beg for pledges. Surely one plaintive plea for money, sent to 300 recipients would exponentially increase the chances of getting a few token contributions from sympathetic friends and associates. Then the surprise came.
Within 24 hours, by plunge day, our team had accumulated over $1,800 in checks, cash, and pledges. Most of the 11th hour contributors were old friends and business associates I had not seen in a few years, and they all were intrigued at the image of a grown man jumping into an icy pool with rabbit ears. Many responded with some cute comment, most insisted on pictures, and all opened up their wallets to the Special Olympics.
I learned a valuable lesson. If you ask people for something you get one result, but when you get people emotionally invested in the same goal, you get something entirely different. I became involved by plunging, and they became involved by contributing.
The Saturday plunge turned out to be fun. At zero hour, temperatures were in the mid-20’s, sky overcast, wind blowing…perfect conditions for hypothermia. 20 large blocks of ice stacked imposingly next to the above-ground pool at Applebee’s Park made us rethink the sensibility of the cause. But just before the plunge, standing in line next to Beetlejuice, Superman, and other year-around Halloween fans, I was proud of us all. And I treasured the time I got to spend with my daughter, doing something goofy, irresponsible, and memorable.
We got TV and newspaper coverage, but the real victory was in the event and the reasons for it, to raise money for Special Olympians, and the way we all, plungers and payers, did our respective parts. I told my contributors that even though the Special Olympians would never know who the money came from, they would. It’s gratifying what we can accomplish when we don’t worry about who gets the credit.
Eventually our team raised almost $2,500 for the Kids. It’s all over now, and I go back to being a non-rabbit. I didn’t perish in the ice water. I didn’t even catch a cold as my 90-year-old Mom promised.
But the spirit of the Special Olympics emphasized to all of us “normal” sports fans what competition is really all about. The object is to participate. And winning, while a natural and worthwhile objective, is not the only one. There is a quote on the Special Olympics Kentucky website: “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”
So I’m guessing this is why my teammates and the other 275 plungers did what we did. We wanted to participate in this short event called life. We didn’t care about the humiliation. We didn’t care about winning. We didn’t require any compensation. And we would not have traded the opportunity for anything.
Life is not a dress rehearsal.