Highlanders make a splash for Special Olympics


Megan Degnan, Vicki Miller and Jonathan Beasley (front row) and Frankie Fitzgerald, Hollie Fitzgerald and John Rudd (back row) make up the Radford/Virginia Tech alumni group, the Chillbillies.

Nothing stood in the way of this year's Highlander Polar Plunge fundraiser for Special Olympics.

Not even a 50-foot chunk of ice.

"There was no way we were going to cancel this year," said Matt Camire, director of development for Special Olympics Virginia.

Last year's Southwest Virginia plunge – one of four Special Olympics hosts annually in the Commonwealth - was canceled for the first time in its six-year stretch due to inclement weather. Determined to offer the challenge to participants once again, organizers fought through wintry conditions last week to make sure those who wanted to brave the frigid New River could do so.

Camire and crew visited Bisset Park days before the Feb. 28 event and used branches and poles to break up the ice at Dudley's Landing, the docking point where participants line up to take the dip.

Their efforts weren't wasted as a record 450-plus people, including dozens of Radford University students, registered to take the plunge. More than $40,000 was raised – another record.


Participants exiting the river at the Polar Plunge at Dudley's Landing.

The lively crowd began gathering down by the river around 10:30 a.m. to register and rally in the 28-degree temperature. Some sat huddled in circles with blankets while others beat the chill by dancing to music blasting through speakers.

In a vehicle decorated with a Florida license plate, two women waited in the warmth.

Among the participants was the Chillbillies, a team made up of Radford and Virginia Tech alumni. The group is no stranger to the event – they've participated every year and raised a lot of money. Small in numbers – about seven members total – the group raised close to $3,000 this year, the third highest amount among all the teams.

"It's for a good cause, and it's fun," said Chillbilly Hollie Fitzgerald, '05, '13.

Special Olympics helps individuals with intellectual disabilities overcome barriers through sports. Athletes practice and compete in tournaments ranging from basketball to bowling.

The tenured Chillbillies offered words of advice to "the newbies."

"Wear as little as you can, then rush back and put on as many layers possible," said Megan Degnan, a Tech grad.

"Just go for it," said Jonathan Beasley, '07.

According to those recommendations, Katie Hartman, a member of RU's chapter of Sigma Kappa, was dressed appropriately in a colorful tutu and T-shirt.

"Why wouldn't I participate?" Hartman said. "It's my senior year, so I said, 'Why not?'"

Special Olympics is the philanthropy for two of RU's Greek Life chapters – Phi Sigma Kappa and Alpha Sigma Alpha. In addition to the Polar Plunge, the chapters support the organization throughout the year, volunteering at tournaments, attending special events - such as the recent Valentine's Day dance - and participating in the No Limits Week campus campaign in which they bring awareness to the life-changing organization.

"These athletes shouldn't be forgotten," said Phi Sigma Kappa President EJ Poell. "We are here to support them."

Also in attendance was RU's men's soccer team. The group participates each year "to show support for our community," said team member Jamie Summers.

"Anything we can do to give back."


Group photo of all of the Greek Life participants at the Polar Plunge.

Following a costume contest and a testimonial from a Special Olympics athlete, teams took turns – some racing, some cringing – into the frigid water. Members of the City of Radford Police Department and professionally-trained divers were on hand to make sure everything went off without a hitch.

"It was cold, real cold," said a soaked Poell on the journey back to his vehicle.

The cold was worth it in the end, said Robert Marias, assistant director of Student Activities – Greek Life.

Mar 5, 2015