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Area now immersed in social media fad

Authorities warn that unsupervised jumps are risky

Published: Thursday, May 8, 2014 1:15 a.m. CDT
Alex Leaf, a member of Rock Falls High School's Class of 2013, emerges from the Rock River just ahead of junior Tanner Dean after they recently fulfilled their "24-hour polar plunge."

DIXON – The “24-hour polar plunge challenge” has been making its way through social media feeds across the nation in the past month. Now, it seems, it’s finally coming to the Sauk Valley.

The way the challenge works is that people, mostly young adults, dare each other to jump into frigid waters and record their escapades for all to see. Before (or after) they jump in the water, they “call out” other friends to do the same, and usually tag them in a post on Facebook.

Unlike most polar plunges, which are carefully monitored by medical staff and authorities – and attached to a specific charity – this challenge is mostly just for fun.

That’s not to say no good is coming of it.

Golden Key Gifts in Sterling is sponsoring a donation drive in connection with these individual plunges for the Team Jess Scholarship Fund: $10 if you jump, at least $50 if you don’t.

But, owner Terry Bright said, pledges of up to $250 have been made by those who chicken out on the challenge. Bright and his wife, Penny, lovingly refer to those people as “Polar Plunge Pansies.”

The scholarship fund, Bright explained, is set up in memory of Jessica Strader, who died last year of breast cancer. Strader was a Prophetstown High School graduate and a teacher in the Sterling schools, so those are the two high schools where scholarship applicants come from.

A $1,000 scholarship is awarded to one senior from each high school through an application process that includes writing an essay about someone who inspired you. Because, Bright said, his niece Strader inspired many people.

“It’s been great for the cause,” Bright said. “We just hope everyone’s careful, and that they’re doing it in a swimming pool or doing it with adult supervision.”

So far, Bright said, the polar plunge campaign has raised $4,000.

“All of a sudden, people started coming in,” he said when asked about promoting the campaign. “We don’t really know where they all came from; people have just jumped on this Team Jess train.”

Pete Harkness Auto Group, too, is sticking with the core of the challenge. On Monday, the auto dealer presented $1,000 to Relay for Life of Whiteside County after more than 100 people shared videos of themselves taking the plunge on the Pete Harkness Auto Group Facebook page.

On that same day, in response to the increasing number of people taking the plunge, the Dixon Police Department issued an official release to warn people about dangers that could be involved.

“The Dixon Police Department asks that no one participate in any of these individual challenges,” the release said. “The current and undertow in the Rock River are highly dangerous and an individual could find themselves in danger very quickly. In addition, people underestimate the effect the frigid water temperatures could have on their bodies.”

A simple YouTube search for “Polar Plunge Challenge” turns up more than 100 videos of people attempting the plunge – some in safer water conditions than others.

At 4 p.m. Friday, Rock Falls police officers and firefighters stood watch as about 50 youths entered the water at the Arduini boat launch at the junction of the Rock River and Hennepin Canal.

Police Chief Mike Kuelper said an officer had driven by and noticed the large group of kids, so he called in backup.

“They were jumping off the bridge, and so we were getting them to stop,” Kuelper said. “We were letting them walk off the boat ramp, but not allow them to jump off the bridge.

“It’s very dangerous because of the cold water temperatures, and if you dive in you might not know if it’s shallow or what the conditions are,” Kuelper said. “You might be injured.”

The whole ordeal took about an hour, Kuelper said, and he had firefighters on standby in case anyone was injured, though no one was. Swimming in the canal is illegal, and anyone who is in the water could be ticketed by the state Department of Natural Resources, he said.

Dixon police and school resource officer Jason LaMendola spoke to three youths at the Page Park boat dock – dripping wet from their plunge Friday after school – and warned them about the dangers involved with entering the river.

“I explained to them about the undertow and how we had someone pass away right where they were entering,” LaMendola said.

“From listening to the kids talking at school, I know there are a lot more doing it,” he said.

At least one person is believed to have died from attempting the challenge: a man who, authorities say, drowned after jumping into a frigid river in Bristol, New Hampshire.

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