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More than 350 ‘polar bears’ take the plunge

Jaime McCaffrey Waukegan is first run out Lake Michigan after taking part 14th Annual Polar Bear Plunge held Waukegan Municipal

Jaime McCaffrey of Waukegan is the first to run out of Lake Michigan after taking part in the 14th Annual Polar Bear Plunge held at the Waukegan Municipal Beach. Proceeds from the event will benefit the Special Recreation Services of Northern Lake County Waukegan. | Thomas Delany Jr.~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: February 3, 2013 6:19AM

WAUKEGAN — What gets people out of their warm beds on a 14-degree morning that follows the latest night of the year? More to the point, what makes them leave the relative comfort of dry land and tiptoe, sprint or even belly-flop into water hovering a shade or two above the freezing mark?

For all of the 350-plus children, women and men taking place in Tuesday’s 14th annual Polar Bear Plunge at Municipal Beach, the short answer is they jump in the lake to benefit the Special Recreation Services of Northern Lake County/Waukegan. A more complete answer is delivered through teeth that are often chattering following the effort.

“Perfect cure for a hangover,” said Brian Burmeister of Gurnee, who raced in and out of frigid Lake Michigan for the fourth year in a row with friends Ryan Carpenter, Jose Guevara and Garrett Van Schaick.

For 14-year-old Nicole Burzin of Gurnee and 14-year-old Maddie Baio, there was a long-term reward at stake.

“We get One Direction tickets (since) we did it,” she said, wrapped in a towel after hustling out of the water. “My parents are going to buy them for us.”

Asked if she had purchased the tickets to see the British pop quintet, mom Pam Baio, who took tackled the Big Lake herself, said, “No, but I promised. She will get them.”

As in past years, the 2013 Plunge was an opportunity for participants to make a fashion statement. Brendan and Emily Alviani wore fleece footie pajamas, with Brendan opting for a pink model. Will Gardner of Waukegan wore a lucha libre getup. And for Paul Portegys of Antioch, joined by wife Boots, the choice was a T-shirt noting that he was celebrating a landmark birthday with a stroll into the lake.

“Seventy today!” he said after walking ashore, pumping a fist overhead.

“This is our fifth or sixth year (doing the plunge), and this is going to be his last year,” said Boots, who wore a faux-bikini oversized T-shirt for the occasion.

“It just seemed like a fun thing to do,” he said with a smile when asked why a man with the wisdom of years would enter a Great Lake in January. “What a way to spend a birthday — a New Year’s birthday.”

For Blair Gartley of Waukegan, the Plunge was an opportunity to both pay tribute to her brother, Jacob, and raise funds for an organization that assists him.

“My brother has Down’s syndrome, so we raised money at T.R.’s (Front Row) where I work, and then my birthday was a benefit to raise money for the Polar Bear Plunge, so I came out here to help out,” said Gartley, who ran in with five co-workers but, it was pointed out, was the only one who dove in all the way.

“You have to do it — I told everybody all I needed was a running start,” she said. “This was my third year doing it, the second going all the way under. (The first year) I was young and I ran in and realized how cold it was and ran back out. Now, I go all the way in.”

According to Julie Schneider with Special Recreation Services, at least 360 people signed up to enter the water partially or completely on Tuesday, including more than 220 who signed up on Tuesday morning. Proceeds from the Plunge will be used to provide scholarship funding to qualified recipients, as well as to equip Waukegan special recreation athletes with uniforms and cover their costs for entry fees and travel expenses for Special Olympics events.

Special Recreation Services represents residents from not only the Waukegan Park District but also those in Lindenhurst, Round Lake and Zion. For more information, visit

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