By Tricia Goecks


The Special Olympics oath states “Let me win. But if I cannot win. Let me be brave in the attempt.”

Being brave in the attempt was de rigueur on Saturday March 7 when 518 brave individuals took the plunge at Rock Cut State Park in Caledonia.

The Polar Plunge, that is.

The Polar Plunge raised $117,019. The event attracted supporters of Special Olympics for a chilly dip in Olson Lake.  Each person making the plunge raised at least $75 for Special Olympics. Many of the participants wore costumes. After racing into the water, many of the participants dove under the water and several of them made their way to the far end of the water to high five the personnel who wore wet suits in the water.

Because Olson Lake is still covered in thick ice, workers on Friday cut back an area in Olson Lake for the participants to jump into the freezing cold water.  Overnight, the water froze and the workers had to repeat the ice removal.

“Rock Cut went above and beyond the call of duty to help us take the plunge,” Debbie Kelly, director of Northwest Illinois Special Oympics said.

Through fundraisers such as the Polar Plunge and the Law Enforcement Torch Run, Special Olympians do not pay to train or participate in the games.

Among the first teams to make the plunge was Barry’s Team. Belvidere’s Barry Tillema was helped into the water by his father Arnie and Christel Ilg. Barry Tillema has been participating in the Polar Plunge since it first began in the area 10 years ago. The only time he missed participating was when he was hospitalized.

“I like to do it. I thought this would be a good thing for me to do,” Tillema said.

Ilg from Capron has been participating in the Polar Plunge for the last four years. She has been involved in Special Olympics since its 1968 inception. As a member of the Clipped Wings, an organization of former and retired flight attendants, Ilg travels throughout the world to volunteer at national and international Special Olympics games. “It is a fantastic way of making money and helping out,” Ilg said.

Ilg was impressed by the increased level of support that people with special needs and Special Olympics have received since she first was involved in the organization. “From 1968 until now it is a total difference,” Ilg noted.

“The awareness in the area is great,” Jen Hazelwood, volunteer director from BraveHearts Therapeutic Riding and Educational Center in Caledonia and Harvard added.

Hazlewood carried BraveHearts flag with her into frigid water. “We are a big supporter of Special Olympics,” Hazlewood, said. The Special Olympics Equine Games are held at BraveHearts’ Caledonia facility. “We have six of here doing it from the president all of the way down to volunteers.”

Rockford East High School and Belvidere High School were recognized as the two schools raising the most amount of money. Students from East raised $3,207. The Freezing Our Bucs Off team raised $2,328.

“This is a great representation of our youth,” Kelly praised the East and Belvidere students.

“To see the support and raising over $100,000 is just incredible,” Ryan McKnight from Garden Prairie said. The B Club, varsity athletes from Belvidere High School, is participating for the first time this year. “And this is just one of the areas doing it. Knowing that there are other areas doing it is just incredible.”

The Polar Plunge is held at 20 locations in Illinois throughout the winter and early spring. Through March 8, Polar Plunge participants have raised nearly $1.7 million.

Because of the money raised Special Olympians do not pay to participate or compete in their sports.

“We see them every day how much it means to them,” Hazelwood said.  “BraveHeart athletes prepare  for it all year long and we see how excited they are when it comes along and when they get those medals. It is awesome.”

“It is fun being part of a team, wearing a uniform and competing in sports and winning a medal,” Tillema added.

Coaches from Iddy Biddy Pool School in Sycamore took the plunge and raised $6,695.03. The team took top honors for the most money raised by a team with less than 15 participants, most money raised by an individual and best costume. Jeremy Stine from the team raised $2,532.

“All of us volunteer coaches work for Opportunity House out of Sycamore,” Stine said. “Each year we work really hard to do this.”

Opportunity House serves 275 individuals with disabilities. The program offers 24 hour residential care, intermittent residential care, developmental training, Special Olympics and recreational activities.

Like many of the participants, Stine plunged all of the way into the water this year. “It is beyond cold,” Stine said. “I came up and had no breath and could not walk.”

“We all went under,” Tyler Lass from the Freezing our Bucs off team added. “It was cold.”

Ilg asked this intrepid reporter if she will be participating in the Polar Plunge next year. As someone who takes 20 minutes to fully enter her heated swimming pool in August, that answer is a no. But I will donate to the cause and come cheer the other participants on the first Saturday in March.

“It goes to a good cause,” Tillema said.

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