By PAUL BOREHAM
There were various methods to the madness. Some tiptoed to the edge of the platform, looked down and simply hopped in. Others took a bold run and flew like Superman. Some said a few last words before taking the leap. A couple flipped. A mischievous few were intent on splashing the throng that surrounded the pool outside University of Guelph’s Creelman Hall. But all who ultimately found themselves in the icy water did a kind of primal scream and dance as the crowd cheered them on.
It was all for Special Olympics Ontario’s upcoming spring games, which are being held in Guelph May 26-28. About 130 participants braved the cold weather and zero degree water in a public display of bravery.
“Special Olympics athletes go beyond their comfort level every day and so this is a really good way to support them,” said Dominique O’Rourke, Special Olympics Ontario’s corporate fundraiser for the spring games.
The 2016 games will be the largest in the organization’s history, she said. One thousand people –750 athletes along with coaches and managers – are expected. Six hu
ndred volunteers will be on hand.
“People with an intellectual disability face a lot of barriers, and the Special Olympics allows them to be a part of a team and to experience the joy and competition of sport,” said O’Rourke. She added, “The ability to go to other communities to compete in provincial, national or even world games is an important aspect of that. Allowing the athletes to flourish as much as they can is really critical.”
The games are also important for the host community, she said. “It shows a community that inclusion is important.”
Behind it all are those men and women in spiffy uniforms who normally keep the community safe – the police. And law enforcement have a long history with the Special Olympics. The story goes back several decades.
“In the early 1960s, Dr. Frank Hayden (a professor at the University of Toronto) discovered that individuals with intellectual disabilities seemed to all have physical health issues, such as obesity, high blood sugar, etc.,” said Constable Chris Probst, a member of the Guelph Police Service and manager of the 2016 games. “He found that individuals were just simply not given the opportunity to live a healthy lifestyle as far as sport goes, so he created what came to be the Special Olympics.”
The Special Olympics were first adopted in the U.S. by the Kennedy administration. Toronto was host to the first games in Canada, in 1969.
Police services quickly took up the cause in the 1970s with the Law Enforcement Torch Run – a marathon – to raise funds. “That’s grown and grown and grown and now it’s international,” said Probst.
“In 1997 it was decided that every time there’s an Olympic event, the police service in the jurisdiction of the event will take charge of running it.” The Guelph Police Service, with Probst at the helm, are running the games this year. The plunge is the main fundraising event, and it’s a first for the city.
The University of Guelph is providing accommodation for the athletes, Probst said. There are six events: swimming, powerlifting, rhythmic gymnastics and 5- and 10-pin bowling in various locations throughout the city and one venue in Cambridge.
“The entire service is involved,” said Probst. From the chief to constables, all are volunteering their time and money in preparation for the games.
Bryan Larkin, chief of the Waterloo Regional Police Service, was also at the event.
“Waterloo and Guelph Police Service work very closely together, but Special Olympics is the official charity of choice of Ontario chiefs and Chief DeRuyter (Guelph) is a very good friend of mine and he asked me if I would support the cause and so here I am, ready to take the plunge and freeze for a good reason,” said Larkin.
“It’s going to be fun, but I’m trying to decide whether I’m going to do the cannonball or the can opener,” he added. (See the photo for his final decision.)
There are many ways to donate, including an adopt-an-athlete program. See the Guelph Police Service website, guelphpolice.ca, for details.
VIP plungers included Jeff DeRuyter, Guelph’s chief; Chief Larkin; Lloyd Longfield, Guelph’s MP; Guelph Mayor Cam Guthrie; Pam Damoff, MP for Oakville; U of G officials and others.
As one o’clock approached, Creelman Hall started filling up with groups of people, registering at a long table inside the door and getting organized at round tables scattered around the hall.
“We had the chief of police and the representative of Special Olympics come to our site and they did a presentation in front of all our employees,” said Phil Clayton, maintenance supervisor at McNeil Consumer Healthcare, the makers of Tylenol. “From there on, we decided, as a part of our credo, to support community. So this is just part of our way of connecting and investing in other people’s lives.”
Asked how he felt about plunging, he said, “There’s no ice on top, so that’s good.” But he didn’t want to dip his hand in to see how cold it was. Eight people from the McNeil group were plunging.
A group of seven from Meridian Credit Union were also gathering. District vice-president Carlo Montagnese did feel the water and noted just how cold it was. “It’s all for a great cause,” he said. Meridian has taken part in the plunges and Special Olympics fundraising before, but the fact that the games were being held in the city this year brought them out.
One o’clock arrived and the plunging began. Emcee Lisa Richards, Magic 106.1 FM DJ, began the countdown of plungers, starting with Chief DeRuyter, all dressed up as a robber. Splashes, cheers and laughter came and went. Many participants dressed up in costume for the occasion, others dressed down, showing bare skin. Some went solo, others in groups.
One young lady, sporting freckles and looking like a drowned seal, stepped out of the pool and said to her fellow plunger, “I’ve never felt this cold in my entire life!” as they emerged wet and dripping.
Plungers were given a towel and taken inside by a volunteer, where hot drinks and snacks were waiting.
Chris Heasley, from the Meridian group, stepped back outside to watch the rest of the show. He was in bare feet, still wet, with a towel draped around him. He was “glowing” from his achievement. It was all worth it, he said.