By Brandi Makusk
This is all Tony Zblewski’s fault.
“You’re gonna jump with us, right?” Sgt. Zblewski gleefully inquired of me on Jan. 3 outside a meeting of the Stevens Point Police and Fire Commission.
Zblewski, who works for the Stevens Point Police Dept., has been jumping in the icy Wisconsin River for the Special Olympics Polar Plunge every winter for 18 years. The first time, he jumped with SPPD Sgt. John Moss. Since then, he’s jumped annually without fail. Sometimes as part of a team; other times, he jumps alone.
For the past few years, he’s built what he calls a “core unit” of jumpers comprised of fellow Stevens Point officers and Chief Martin Skibba, as well as a Portage Co. Corrections Officer. In 2017, a female agent from the Wausau Post of the FBI and her husband also joined the team.
The team is called “Copsicles”, and this year, I was also pinged.
I knew there was no way out of this one. In October of 2016, I volunteered to be tased during the Citizen’s Academy. Last December, I suited up with Plover firefighters and willingly entered a burning house. I’d unwittingly showed off my daredevil spirit–all in the name of professional development–and I’m seemingly stuck with it. And really, after thousands of people have watched you on video being tased, there’s not much you can decline to at least try.
I thought I knew what to expect after covering the Polar Plunge for the last few years. Last year, the SPPD tossed Chief Skibba into the water, a nod to the plunge’s “Toss the Boss” incentive for groups who raise a certain amount of money for the cause.
I was secretly hoping to have a hand in tossing the chief this year, but no such luck as one of my female teammates grabbed my arm and said, “C’mon; ladies first.”
I’m not just a crybaby in the cold; I’m absolutely terrified of it. It reminds me of desperate poverty and rattles my bones for days. Thinking I was being smart, I accommodated by donning several layers of clothing, to include thermal underwear, blue jeans and a long-sleeved shirt reading “The cops made me jump” (something suitable only in this context). In other words, I overdressed like gangbusters, and combined with a GoPro camera strapped to my forehead, courtesy of the department, I looked ridiculous.
Everything happened so quickly. We went from watching on the sidelines to being at the center of it all in a matter of moments. Before I knew it, someone started counting down…”three….two….one…jump!” and the next thing I knew, we group of brave souls leapt into the air and fell into the water like it was summertime at Iverson.
Not dissimilar to when your water heater dies in the middle of your shower, it’s a shock to the system. It felt like a thousand knives piercing my skin, and the extra clothing I’d worn made climbing out of the water all the more difficult. I finally emerged from the Wisconsin River after three tries, but then I had to walk a good 50 yards to a heated trailer so I could change into dry clothing.
The walk was a bigger deal than the jump itself; soaking wet jeans are unbelievably heavy.
But in hindsight, the jump itself really wasn’t that big a deal. The anxiety is the worst of it, but once you consider the challenges Special Olympics athletes overcome in their own daily lives, being so afraid of a little cold water suddenly seems rather petty.
So, for those curious and willing, a few tips for next year’s jump:
- Never wear blue jeans.
- Don’t ever wear pink thermal underwear beneath a white T-shirt; you look ridiculous when wet.
- Wear a costume. Get noticed.
- Bring a non-jumping friend to hold your towel and take goofy pictures of your contorted facial expressions.
- Jump with a team and challenge your boss; you’ll never have another chance to throw him/her into icy water without getting fired.
- Take advantage of the heated Jacuzzi. You’ve earned it.
- Ladies: Clothing clings to the skin when wet; take measures to…ensure it doesn’t turn into a wet T-shirt contest.
Each winter, thousands of people jump into the freezing waters across the state to support the Wisconsin Special Olympics. Last year, various Polar Plunge jumps raised over $1 million to benefit more than 10,000 special athletes.
Totals for this year’s jumps are still being tallied, but Copsicles raised more than $2,500 for their Feb. 4 jump.
Being a part of the jump wasn’t just about supporting the local Special Olympics; it was also a chance to experience, firsthand, the enormous camaraderie between the men and women of local law enforcement. Thanks for the invite.