Polar Bears can sustain temperatures as low as -51 degrees Fahrenheit. Yet this was the farthest thing from my mind with my toes curled around the edge of the Mon Wharf Dock for the Pittsburgh Polar Bear Plunge at 8 a.m. on New Years Day. Standing there in nothing but a swim cap and drag suit with my bravest teammates, I tried to brace myself for the moment my feet shattered the surface of the Monongahela River. The tide seemed to mock me as it splashed garbage up against the dock. The fact that eight hundred dollars was on my back helped me coupe with the quite literal goose bumps that covered my body as the 12 MPH wind and 23 degree wind chill met my bare back. Most people would argue that there is nothing logical about jumping into 36 degree water for three minutes. Yet this plunge demanded serious amounts of rhetoric: persuading my teammates to surrender their New Year’s Day morning, my family and friends to donate their money, and finally myself to do this challenge to the point of hypothermia.
As captain of the swim team at an all male Catholic school, I was expected to bring the team together and perform at least one service project for the community. The idea of a polar bear plunge actually hit me as I gazed into the river while atop one of Pittsburgh’s many bridges. I recalled my Dad half kidding about doing a polar bear plunge sometime in the future and realized its relevance to swimming would make it an ideal project. I began to plan out how I would make this idea a reality. I decided that every team member would collect pledges for every plunger to stay in the water. These donations would ultimately be donated to a local charity by the name of Project Bundle Up.
When I proposed this idea to my principal I used a very logical and emotional approach. He thought it was an appropriate way for the swim team to serve after I pointed out the empathy we were creating with the people we were plunging for. Project Bundle Up is dedicated to buying appropriate winter clothing for children in the greater Pittsburgh area. So jumping into freezing water in nothing but a drag suit seemed to simulate the type of discomfort and pain we were working to abolish. With my principal’s blessing, it then became time to recruit.
The most strategic part of this project was not how to stay in freezing water, but how to get kids to jump into it. To be quite honest, apathy is rampant in my high school. Therefore an overzealous cheer for charity would not inspire participation. One dynamic of an all guys school is the weight of one’s pride. Unlike most high schools, superficial appearance and exterior were quite meaningless. There really is no opportunity to say, “Ohhhhhhh my gawwwd did you see what dress shoes he is wearing.” First of all, flamboyant comments like that in a homophobic all male setting would cause you some serious problems. Secondly, there really is not a lot of room for judgement when everyone else is wearing dress shoes. The emphasis is put on how you handle yourself through your body language and behavior. That being said, without girls to impress we all candidly tear each other down for being different. It is certainly a double standard where excelling and having intellectual class discussions means you try too hard, failing means you are too “slow”, and getting by means you are too lazy. The Glee club gets ripped on by the football team. The Glee club mocks the winless lacrosse team, while everyone makes fun of the robotics team. With this in mind, I posted the plunge as a challenge. Like any other sports team, we were a group of athletes with varying skill levels. This event was unique because it appealed to fortitude rather than talent. The question was not who was the fastest but who was the toughest. (Is this a bad time to mention I lasted a whole minute and a half longer than anyone else?) Surprisingly enough I received my most significant amounts of enthusiasm from some of our least skilled swimmers. The “bottom feeders”, as they were called, seized the opportunity and excelled in an event our prodigy swimmers slept through. By appealing to their emotions and utilizing my authority as captain, I was able to recruit a very select third of our team to do the event.
I brought a much more charitable tone to my family members than the testosterone-fueled challenge for my teammates. Appealing to my family members’ Irish guilt on Christmas was as easy as giving out candy on Halloween. I received an outpouring of support when I offered to exchange my Christmas gifts for monetary donations. My brother and I successfully collected over five hundred of the eight hundred dollars needed for this project. This simultaneously combined the logic of surrendering my own Christmas gifts, the emotion of a guilty Catholic family, and my position as a beloved family member.
As a swimmer I was quite familiar with the concept of being timed in the water. However, before the plunge, I had never jumped in with the intent to be the last one out. My mom reassured me that hypothermia would not set in until four minutes in the water. Based off of that statistic I created the safe yet daunting time of three minutes. The second I broke the surface my sense of time and sound was completely altered. I heard people screaming all around me, but once I saw my brother desperately reach for the dock I felt completely alone. My recollection was blurred by adrenaline and the paradoxical sensation within the pain of my body going numb. I could have made my own instrument from the chattering of my jaw as I stared at the bridge on the horizon. Once I came to the end of three minutes my legs would not respond to my brain’s commands. I finally pulled myself out after three minutes and thirty seconds, stumbling desperately for the dock. My body was clad in bright pink with patches of blue on my chest and legs. It took twenty minutes for the involuntary spasms of every muscle group in my body to stop shaking. Never before had I appreciated sleeping bags, hot chocolate, and small car heating vents that much.
While it took less than three and a half minutes to “earn” this money, much more effort and rhetoric was implemented to make the situation possible. In every situation I used my relationship with the audience, appealed to their emotion, and made logical arguments. People who feel style should not affect the outcome of a decision are bound to sink and freeze like Jack Dawson in Titanic. Even though about two hundred pounds of blubber separate me from a polar bear, I was able to stay warm with this polar bear persuasion.