Pride, Pizza and Pizazz — 2024 Polar Plunge Raises $135,000 for Special Olympics

A member of the Pizza Crew from Coal City High School takes the plunge sans crust and toppings as part of the 2024 Law Enforcement Torch Run Polar Plunge at the Braidwood Recreation Club. (Photos by Stephanie Irvine)
A member of the Pizza Crew from Coal City High School takes the plunge sans crust and toppings as part of the 2024 Law Enforcement Torch Run Polar Plunge at the Braidwood Recreation Club. (Photos by Stephanie Irvine)

By Stephanie Irvine

The 2024 Law Enforcement Torch Run (LETR) Polar Plunge made a big splash on Saturday, March 8, at the Braidwood Recreation Club as the region’s event raised $135,000 for the Illinois Special Olympics, according to Region E Director Patty Welsh.

The local event, referenced as Region E, brought in participants from Will, Grundy and Kankakee counties, as well as southern Cook County. This year’s regional donations for the plunge significantly exceeded the $80,000 goal.

Statewide, the event brought in over $2.2 million, with more than 8,000 people taking the plunge into the cool early-March waters.

Saturday’s event drew large crowds, with both spectators and participants in attendance. Braidwood ESDA assisted with traffic control on Illinois 53 and within the park.

Teams participating in the Plunge at the Braidwood Recreation Club included area businesses, government organizations like police and sheriffs departments and school districts.

The Will County Sheriff’s Department had a great showing, with Deputy Mike Janovyak being the Polar Plunge Region E’s top individual fundraiser, bringing in roughly $5,000 for the cause.

“Honestly, it became a competition,” said Janovyak of how he managed to be the top fundraiser. He’s participated in the Polar Plunge event for the past eight years.

“Everyone starts off raising $100 for the plunge. I got into it to see how much we could donate. Each and every year, we’ve gotten bigger as a department. All of us tend to get competitive. It’s fun. Everyone got behind it and is super supportive, wanting to donate. So it got easy!”

The 40-person Will County Sheriff’s Department team was in second place for overall online funds raised in the region with $11,421. In both on and off-line donations, the team raised approximately $19,000 according to Will County Sheriff’s team organizer Deputy Victoria Janovyak, Mike’s wife.

“I’m excited! This is really the most that we’ve made,” Victoria Janovyak said.

“My goal was $15,000, and last year we raised, I think $13,000, so I wanted to raise a little bit more. This year, we got some businesses and we got 10 more plungers, which makes a big difference. Everyone raised over their minimums.”

Those taking the plunge enjoyed a fair-weather with part sun and a balmy 44-degree air temperature. Plunging began at noon and took place in waves as each team dove in. While the temperature was cool, the atmosphere was warm and friendly, with participants enjoying the day and taking the plunge in various costumes and swim suits.

“The sun is out, it’s beautiful. It could’ve been like yesterday, raining and cold, so I’ll gladly take this!” Mike Janovyak said. “You don’t want it too warm, because then it’s a shock.

“This [weather] is amazing,” offered Victoria Janovyak.

“I knew it was for a good cause. I’ve heard about Special Olympics for a long time. The Brewery had a team, so I figured I’d do it,” said Ken Dauer, who was plunging with Rt. 66 Old School Brewing of Wilmington. The event also fell on Dauer’s birthday, so he took the plunge wearing a tiara and sash for added fun.

The Citgo team brought along a mascot wearing a Polar Bear inflatable costume, cheering the team on from the sidelines as they plunged into the waters. The Coal City School District 25-person team donned pizza-themed onesies, and T-shirts to take the plunge.

“A lot of us work for our district’s special education department, or we’re in related services, like speech therapy, social work, so our students are why we do this,” said Margaret Marsaglia.

She had taken the plunge six times at other area events over the years; this being her seventh year.

“I expect it to be a shock when my feet hit the water. That’s when it gets cold and you get the wake-up. Then you just go the rest of the way in. Getting the feet out of the way is the hardest,” said Marsaglia.

Of the 35 teams participating in this year’s event, the team that raised the most funds online was the 59-person KSD140 Plungers team with more than $30,000 raised. The massive team plunged in several rounds, and all wore donut-themed attire for the plunge.

One of multiple Law Enforcement Torch Run (LETR) fundraising events for the Illinois Special Olympics, the Polar Plunge encourages participants to take a jump into waters at one of the 24 locations throughout the state during the months of February and March.

The first-ever Polar Plunge event took place in 1999 in Lake Bluff in the far north suburbs.

The Illinois Special Olympics helps individuals with intellectual disabilities participate in various athletic competitions through Special Olympics programs.

The Special Olympics website reports that the cause supports 21,000 traditional athletes with intellectual disabilities and 9,000 young athletes, with support including training, competition, and opportunities for leadership, personal development, and health education.

Stephanie Irvine is a freelance reporter.

Mike Janovyak, second from left, of the Will County Sheriff’s Department, was the top fundraiser for the region with $5,000. Wife Victoria, center, and the kids, celebrate the accomplishment.

Ken Dauer, wearing the tiara, leads his group from Rt 66 Old School Brewing of Wilmington back to shore after a plunge.

Plungers from the Coal City School District show they have the sauce and crust to compete.

A plunger from the Coal City School District shows how to crust-surf.

Will County Sheriff’s Deputy Victoria Janovyak, in the teal, shows her kids how to make waves as Michael Erickson wades into the waters.

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