by Andrew Crum with the NCAA
Perhaps the motto says it all, ‘Freezin’ for a Reason.
For John Shukie, director for academic and membership affairs, his reason came in February last year. His daughter, Nadia, was born with Down syndrome on February 10, 2012. And a random trip to Starbucks a week after her birth would pique his interest about a special way to honor her.
In an effort to help raise money for Special Olympics-Indiana (a not-for-profit organization that provides year-round sports training and athletic competition in more than 20 Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities), Starbucks featured advertisements about an upcoming Polar Plunge event at Eagle Creek Reservoir.
After Shukie found out more information on the event website, he knew he wanted to participate.
The Polar Plunge is an annual charitable event held in February where nearly 600 participants jump into a cold body of water to raise money for Special Olympics-Indiana. “I actually like cold water, so it doesn’t bother me too much,” Shukie said. “I went to college in Maine, so I am used to the cold.”
In less than two weeks before last year’s event, Shukie collected over $3,300 in donations (his goal was $2,000) from family, friends and co-workers – an unexpected and overwhelming outpouring of support.
Fast forward to 2013. Shukie participated in the plunge again, held on Saturday, February 23. However, this year Shukie was not alone. Instead, ‘Team Nadia’ also had with help from nine other NCAA staff members (Brynna Barnhart, Nino Berticelli, Andy Cardamone, Juliette Kenny, Louise McCleary, Cindi Merrill, Stephanie Metz, Jason Montgomery and Jean Orr).
“Some were harder to convince than others,” Shukie said. “Some were good friends, for others it was on their bucket lists, and a few had family members with disabilities. It was a good thing to do for everyone.”
Not only was the Polar Plunge for a great cause, but it is also allowed for the group to show off their favorite 1980’s prom attire for the group costume contest. So Team Nadia dressed to impress – shoulder pads, corsages, boutonnieres and all.
Taking the Plunge
The Polar Plunge teams anxiously wait to hear their name called, and then report to the staging tent, a temporary resting (and warming) station, before taking the ‘plunge’. After the team is called, they exit the staging tent to a set of steps leading toward the beach. Lining up shoulder to shoulder, they anticipate the countdown, and then “freestyle” (plunger’s choice of walking, running or swimming) how they enter the water.
While some teammates quickly ran in and back out, Shukie dove in head first after he took a few steps into the icy water. “When the water first hits you, it takes your breath away,” he said.
The worst part of taking the ‘plunge,’ according to Shukie, is trying to exit the water with the cold wind biting at your numbed skin and the wet, heavy clothing trying to hold you back.
Upon completion of the ‘plunge,’ Team Nadia quickly headed toward an unheated locker room where wall-to-wall people attempt to replace their wet clothing with dry, all while shivering and shaking. If one is fortunate enough to be labeled a ‘Super Plunger’ (raising $4,000 or more, as Shukie did this year) you receive two rewards: to ‘plunge’ twice and a parking pass to park directly behind the event location. For Shukie, the parking pass was the special perk; his wife already had the car running, the heat and seat warmers turned on high when he emerged from the icy water.
Raising the bar
Although the frigid excursion gives participants quite an adrenaline rush and is a display of courage, the most important part of the Polar Plunge – fundraising – is done before event. Using e-mail and forms of social media (Twitter and Facebook), Shukie and others spread the word to family members, friends and co-workers, asking for their donations and support.
In just two years, Shukie has alone raised over $8,300 for the Special Olympics. He collected $5,000 for this year’s event, once again surpassing his own fundraising goal ($4,000).The rest of the team contributed an additional $3,500 this year, making Team Nadia the second highest fundraising team in the city.
“I think it is a testament to the place that the NCAA is to get that support,” Shukie said. “That spoke volumes of the people that work at the national office and their support for the cause.” Shukie plans to continue this annual event in the future, and hopes to increase both fundraising and participation among staff members next year if possible.
Opportunities for Nadia
Another reason that Special Olympics are so near and dear to Shukie and his wife is that both were collegiate student-athletes. And they want to make sure there are opportunities for Nadia to also participate in sports.
“I hope Nadia will be able to participate in Special Olympics,” Shukie said. “Even for just one event, I would be happy.” For Shukie, the Polar Plunge event simply represents something he can do for his youngest daughter without the reliance of others.
“Over the last year, she has had open heart surgery and multiple doctor visits. A lot of things were out of my control, relying on doctors and experts for answers,” he said. “It’s a way for me to support her by being a good dad and giving her the opportunity to participate in athletics, like her other sisters.”“I feel like this is something powerful I can do for her.”