Chrissy Motz has learned to expect just about anything at a Polar Plunge.
Water temperatures ranging between 32 and 35 degrees. Waves sometimes reaching as high as six to eight feet. The air temperature often dipping well below freezing. Sound like fun?
Chrissy thinks so.
“After my first plunge,” the Streetsboro resident says, “I was hooked.”
That was 14 years ago. She was about 16 years old then. “I just take it one year at a time,” she said. “Each year gets harder on all of us.”
Today, she is preparing for the Cleveland Polar Plunge, which will be held in a large outdoor pool at Gateway Plaza. The event is Saturday, Feb. 25 – so it’s almost go time for Chrissy and her team, “Portage Grin and Bear It,” which consists of Chrissy and her father Gary, her niece Noelle Spence, John Bodnar, TJ Harrod, Eric Lager Lindstrom, Linda Ferlito, Jake Ferlito, Gabbie Rosenberger, Amy Liberty, Kyle Kiffer, Jesse Hodges and Joshua Bodnar.
Each Polar Plunge benefits the Special Olympics of Ohio, which holds two plunges in Northeast Ohio each year: Cleveland and Mosquito Lake. There are seven plunges across the state annually. SOOH has set a fundraising goal of $100,000 for the Cleveland Plunge, with team Portage Grin And Bear It setting a goal of $1,000.
“Seventy percent of the money the team raises comes right back to our own athletes here,” Chrissy’s mother, Fran, said. “When people ask Chrissy if she is crazy to take on this challenge, she replies, ‘no, but I believe in giving back to Special Olympics for all they have done for me.’ ”
It was a fellow Streetsboro resident doing his part for Special Olympics that first planted the seed of doing a Polar Plunge in Chrissy’s mind nearly a decade and a half ago.
“I saw that our very own Streetsboro officer, John Bodnar, was doing the plunge in Geneva for Special Olympic athletes,” she said. “I asked my parents to take me to see the plunge and hopefully meet John. When I got there, I introduced myself to John and said, ‘I am one of the athletes that you are doing this for.’ Since then, we have become great friends and plunge buddies.
“This will be John’s 20th year of doing the Special Olympics of Ohio plunge. John once told me if you ask someone after they have plunged if they would like to do it the next year and they hesitate, they most likely will not do it. I said yes right away.”
Indeed, Chrissy has been a regular at plunges ever since, regardless of the challenges presented by Mother Nature — and there have been many. Challenge No. 1: simply having the nerve to step into frigid water clad only in a bathing suit.
“The plungers can stay in the water for as little as several seconds to about three minutes or so,” Fran said. “Only so many go in at a time and once they come out, the next group goes in. They split up Chrissy’s team into two groups, so when they do that she tries to go in two times, once with each group.”
Enduring several minutes in ice-cold water is challenging enough. But doing a plunge with ice on the water significantly increases the level of difficulty – which is the situation Chrissy and her fellow plungers faced in 2020.
“One of the plunges that was pretty scary was the one I did in Twin Lakes,” Chrissy said. “It was the ‘Do It Your Way’ year as SOOH did not have an official plunge due to Covid. The DECCA program out of Kent Roosevelt was having a fundraiser plunge and was kind enough to let me and a few members of my team come to plunge with them. They had a square hole cut in the ice in Twin Lakes. In the hole was a big ladder to help you get out. We had to walk on the fire hose that went to the hole so we would not fall on the slippery ice.
“Once you got to the hole, when it was your turn, you jumped in. Where the hole was located, the water was about eight feet deep. My dad and I held hands and jumped in together and he pushed me back up to the surface, where a fireman jumped in to help me get out. I still came out smiling, but it was scary.”
Considering that plunges are held on bodies of water such as Lake Erie, rough seas can also be an issue.
“There are two plunges that were definitely challenging. They were both in Geneva,” Chrissy said. “One was so cold that whatever area they cleared out for the plungers the night before was frozen so solid that we could walk out on the ice the next morning at 7 a.m. They had to go back out about 7:30 that morning and re-break the ice. That also was when the wind chill was brutal.
“The other plunge was completely different. It was warmer and the water did not freeze. It was very windy and the waves were 6-8 feet. One of the safety forces that was in the water was knocked down and had to go to the hospital. The safety forces had to be tethered to a rope between them while they were in the water. The high school and regular plungers got their plunges in before the waves got so bad. The Super Plungers [a plunger that goes in once an hour for 8 hours] could not do their last plunge. They even tried to angle a backhoe in the water to try to break the waves and it was moving. SOOH canceled the last plunge for the Super Plungers due to the dangerous conditions.
“One volunteer was kind enough to take me to the edge of the water so I could put my hands in. That way I could say I completed all eight of my plunges and was the first Special Olympic athlete to do the Super Plunge.”
Water depth also plays a part.
“In Geneva, the water was up to your waist or deeper, and at Lake Erie the water is usually no deeper than your knees,” Chrissy said. “This year, SOOH decided to have a pool outdoors which is 52 inches deep. I have balance issues, so usually my dad and John Bodnar hold my hands, or one goes in front and one behind me. My niece Noelle Spence and TJ Harrod also help me if I need to go in with the second group of my team.
“I think we will have up to four people go in at a time, so I am not sure if I will be able to go in more than once since this is another new experience for me. When I plunged in Geneva and Lake Erie, I would plunge under the water when we finished walking and high-five the safety forces that were positioned in a semi-circle.”
Then there’s the added challenge of warming back up as quickly as possible.
“My routine is to get changed right after the plunge into some dry clothes,” she said. “Then I thank all my team members because they make the difference. I get in the car and turn on the heated blanket, go home, take a hot shower, grab something to eat and usually go right to bed. I am usually tired for a few days after, but I feel good knowing I have helped to make a difference in the lives of some Special Olympic athletes.”
Chrissy makes a difference in other ways as well. She was previously involved with SOOH athlete leadership but had to step down due to work and other commitments, and she has participated in the Law Enforcement Torch Run, Tip a Cop [police officers wait on tables, with tip donations going to Special Olympics] and Cop on Top [officers go on top of doughnut shops to help raise money for Special Olympics). Chrissy was awarded the Spirit of Special Olympics for all of her fundraising, hard work and dedication to the organization, and she has taken part in the Special Olympics Cleveland Plane Pull.
She also did an in-studio interview on Channel 3 News in Cleveland in 2019 (watch here). “I absolutely enjoyed being on TV!” she said. “I am very excited when I can tell people about Special Olympics and the plunge and try to get more members to join my team. I enjoy telling them how much Special Olympics has done for me throughout the years.”
Right now, though, she is focused on Saturday’s Polar Plunge – and all the preparations that go with it. Beginning with getting acclimated to the frigid water that’s waiting for her and the other plungers in downtown Cleveland.
“I usually start a week or two before the plunge and end my showers with cold water,” she said. “My mom also makes sure my dad and I take out vitamins and gives us essential oils to ease the stress on the body. As far as clothes, less is better when it comes to going in the icy water. You want to be able to get into dry clothes as quick as possible. John Bodnar did tell me to get dive boots for going into the [lake] water due to the rocks and uneven ground. The first year, I only had sandals that were on what we thought were tight, and I lost one shoe halfway around.”
It ended well, though. “Oh yes, they found my shoe,” Chrissy smiled.
So when she steps out of that freezing-cold water once again on Saturday, she’ll savor the moment of having completed yet another plunge and raising more money for the organization so near and dear to her heart. Pondering whether or not she’ll tackle the next Polar Plunge can wait a while.
“I never know from year to year if I will be doing the plunge,” she said. “I usually wait ’til December or so and see how I am feeling. [Either way], I would like to say a huge thank you to all the people who have taken the time to donate and encourage me throughout the years. I could not do it without my donors and their support. Together we do make a difference!”
To sponsor Chrissy, go to https://give.sooh.org/chrissymotz, which is her 2023 plunge page. Click on the DONATE button, enter your amount and information, and select GIVE NOW. Donations are accepted up to the day of the plunge and even a few weeks after.
“We also encourage people, if there is a Special Olympic event around them, please come and cheer the Special Olympic athletes on,” Fran said. “They are really a hard-working, amazing group of individuals.”
Tom Hardesty is a Portager sports columnist. He was formerly assistant sports editor at the Record-Courier and author of the book Glimpses of Heaven.
Loved the article about Chrissy Motz and her “Polar Plunge” team. Thank you for writing and publishing it Mr. Hardesty. Chrissy and her family
are indeed special people.