As the time for Piedmont’s yearly Polar Plunge approached Saturday morning, organizers pondered a question of human nature.
Would this week’s bitterly cold weather deter people from paying $10 a head to jump into Piedmont’s city pool in the dead of winter? Or would the 28-degree temperature draw more thrillseekers eager to brave the cold?
“It could go either way,” said Mayor Bill Baker. “Maybe it’s too cold for some people. Or maybe a big crowd will come out to watch the crazy-birds who will go out in this.”
Baker was more or less right on both counts. Dozens of people turned out at 10 a.m. Saturday to watch 10 swimmers leap into the 40-degree water, all part of a fundraiser for Venecia’s Foundation, a nonprofit that helps people who have cancer.
The Polar Plunge began five years ago, organized by Venecia Benefield Butler, a Piedmont resident who’d struggled with recurring bouts of breast cancer. Butler’s sister Randa Carroll said Butler felt guilty leaving the hospital after a cancer treatment, and decided to start putting together care packages for cancer patient.
Volunteers for the group regularly assemble “comfort bags” – book bags stuffed to the brim with blankets, lotion, lip balms and other items – for patients. They also hand out hundreds of dollars’ worth of gas-station gift cards to help patients travel for chemo.
Butler died in 2015, but the foundation’s fundraisers carry on her quirky sense of humor. If you see someone in town wearing a shirt that says “CRAP” in all-caps, it’s inspired by Butler’s name for the disease. The foundation sells Butler’s book, “I Have to Get Some Things off My Chest.”
There’s also a 5K Crap Run and a “move the crapper” fundraiser in which volunteers place a toilet on the lawn of a random, good-humored local resident. Pay a fee and the foundation will move the toilet from your lawn to another residence of your choice.
“Last time, we raised about $5,000,” Carroll said. “Every other day, the crapper moved. We had to get two and put them in rotation.”
The polar plunge is one of the more conventional of the group’s fundraisers. Similar ice dips for charity are common in coastal communities, particularly in northern states. This week, most of the country saw uncommonly cold weather as part of what forecasters have called an “arctic surge,” and some communities in the Northeast canceled their polar plunges on the grounds that they were too, well, polar. Baker said he heard of one plunge, up north, that was scrubbed because the ice was too thick to cut through.
Polar plunger Jim Tucker, of Piedmont, said he was more worried about slipping on a thin layer of ice around the edge of the city pool. Tucker came dressed in a frogman suit and a t-shirt from the last plunge. Asked if he was cheating by wearing the wetsuit, Tucker replied: “Yep.”
“I just want to be prepared,” he said.
At the other end of the pool, Joe Ballew of Piedmont, 48, awaited the plunge dressed in a T-shirt, shorts and a ball cap. He claims it’s his usual winter attire. Saturday was his first plunge, which he undertook because his sister was diagnosed with cancer.
“It’s going to be interesting,” he said of the upcoming swim.
After a countdown, the plungers dove in, over the side of the pool, from the diving board and on a water slide. All were out in less than a minute.
Olya Williams said it wasn’t so bad.
“There’s a burn of cold for a second, but then it goes away,” she said.
Williams, a Jacksonville resident since 2011, grew up in Ukraine, where similar ice plunges are a yearly event. In Ukraine, she said, that typically involves cutting a hole in the ice, then stationing someone with a stick, to break new ice as it forms on the water.
Despite the poor turnout, spectators dug into their pockets and gave the foundation a total of about $500, what they would have raised with five times as many swimmers.
Last year’s take, in warmer weather, was more than $1,000. That polar plunge was initially postponed because of ice and snow – not because it was too cold, but because no one could make it to the pool.
“People were saying, ‘come on, it’s a polar plunge!” Carroll recalls.
By the time the rescheduled 2017 plunge was held, the temperature was in the 60s.