The hardy take the plunge for Special Olympics

Punxsutawney Phil was still snoozing in his burrow and the robins of spring were nowhere to be found on Saturday as more than 300 hardy benefactors of Special Olympics braved a sub-freezing wind chill factor to splash into the New River in the fourth annual Highlander Polar Plunge.

Held at Dudley's Landing in Radford's Bisset Park, the plunge was a highlight of the Radford University Winter Jam homecoming weekend festivities and a fundraising initiative on behalf of the Southwest Virginia Special Olympics by the City of Radford Police Department.

"It's an amazing tradition, and I am proud of all of those who participate, though I think they are a bit crazy," said RU President Penelope W. Kyle, whose daughter Whitley took the plunge this year while on her spring break from Christopher Newport University.

The sisters of Alpha Sigma Tau sorority got alumni support to enter a 15-person team for the event and raised more than $600 for the Special Olympics. Team members were on site early and dressed in crowns as they danced and shouted to keep warm. After their dip into the frigid water, Sarah Kistler, a sophomore business major from Newport News, said, "It was freezing. But for a cause close to our hearts, AST will do what it takes."

Kristen Bertram, a graduate student in special education from Naperville, Ill., and member of a 13-person team from RU's Student Council for Exceptional Children, stood on the riverside chattering and draped in a towel after her plunge. "We will do anything to make these kids' lives richer," she said.

Almost 40 teams entered the 2013 Polar Plunge, including groups from RU, Virginia Tech and New River Valley communities.  On hand to ensure a safe plunge were law enforcement representatives from across the region, who ringed the plunge site with divers, boats and emergency personnel.

The Chillibillies, a joint RU-Virginia Tech team of staff and alumni, led the plunge's first wave. Frank Fitzgerald '81, M.S. '83, said, "It is a great cause, and we're proud to raise over $7,000 for it." The Chillibillies, four-year veterans of the event, had a full tailgate operation set up and even had a medical support team with a doctor and nurse on hand.

Emily Morris, a junior psychology major from Portsmouth and president of the Psychology Club, called the plunge an exercise in the power of positive thinking—"mind over matter."

Rick D'Intino of Radford also used mind games to psyche himself up for the icy dip, saying, "The water is supposed to be six degrees warmer than the air, so it will be an improvement."

D'Intino and his wife, Valerie, were dressed as Luchadors (Mexican wrestlers) Nacho Libre and Senorita Libre. The team was shy one family member; son Tom, a senior anthropology major at RU, was home in bed as the plungers assembled for the splashdown.  "I guess he is the smart one in the family," Valerie D'Intino said.

See more photos in the Highlander Polar Plunge 2013 album on Facebook.


RU alumnus Frank Fitzgerald, wearing the fedora, led the Chillibillies in the first wave of the 2013 Highlander Polar Plunge.

Mar 5, 2013
Don Bowman
(540) 831-7523