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Alton native, 19, to plunge into frigid Lake Michigan for Special Olympics

Telegraph - 1/17/2018

Jan. 17--ALTON -- An Alton native plans to take the coldest dips of her life next month, dashing 24 times into frigid Lake Michigan in as many hours to raise money for a favorite charity.

"It's going to be an amazing experience, no matter how cold it is," said Hannah Hazelwonder, 19, a student at Loyola University in Chicago. "I've worked on their fundraisers before and I'm really excited for this."

On Feb. 16, Hazelwonder plans to take the 2018 Law Enforcement Torch Run Polar Plunge, a fundraiser for Special Olympics Illinois. The criminal justice administration major will join emergency responders and others as they run into the lake at Clark Street Beach in Evanston, north of Chicago, then flee back to a warm tent and change of clothing.

Hazelwonder's dashes back to the tent likely will be faster than her forays into the chilly waters. "I am fearing the cold, but it is going to be an amazing experience, no matter how cold it is," she said.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website, ( the average water surface of the Great Lake is between 32- and 37 degrees F in mid-February.

She said Polar Plunge participants must go waist deep into the water, with no toe dipping.

"Some people go in neck up and run out," she said. The hardy plungers also do not wear wet suits, she said. "It would be difficult putting on a wet suit and wearing it for 24 hours wet, or taking it off and putting it on 24 times. It is easier to put on clothes, and taking off a wet T-shirt and shorts" and putting on dry clothing in between her plunges.

It will be the first time the 2015 Marquette Catholic High School graduate will participate in the frigid fundraiser, which began in 1999. She said the Polar Plunge was an offshoot of the annual, statewide 2018 Law Enforcement Torch Run that benefits Special Olympics in much warmer weather. The police officer runners converge at Illinois State University in Normal.

Statewide, there will be 23 such cold water plunges between Feb. 16 and March 25, some including a "dash and donut." The Polar Plunges nearest Alton will be in Springfield, Lake Carlyle, Belleville and Effingham.

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As a fund-raising effort, Hazelwonder's goal is to raise $3,000. "I am just at $300," she said, which was not yet totaled on her donation web page Hazelwonder said there is no minimum donation, and she appreciates any money that people from the greater Alton donate.

"Every bit helps," she said.

In part, her website says: "I have committed to 'be bold and get cold' for the 22,000 Special Olympics athletes participating across Illinois. While I'm getting cold just thinking about it, I'm excited to join the thousands of warm-hearted individuals that will participate in the Polar Plunge. While my Plunge promises to be a little frigid, I do not mind because I am supporting the amazing athletes of Special Olympics Illinois."

People also may make out checks to "Special Olympics Illinois," with Hazelwonder's name on the memo line -- so she gets credit for the donation -- and mail it to Special Olympics Illinois, Attn: Polar Plunge, 605 East Willow St., Normal IL 61761.

Hazelwonder said she was motivated to get involved with Special Olympics because her best friend growing up has Down Syndrome. The young women still keep in touch, despite living far away from each other.

"I have a big sympathy for anything that helps people with disabilities," Hazelwonder said. "They have a special place in my heart. It's an amazing cause, this is such a special way to be able to help people."

Special Olympics Illinois' website describes its mission and history: "Through programming in sports, health, education and community building, Special Olympics is changing the lives of people with intellectual disabilities solving the global injustice, isolation, intolerance and inactivity they face. Special Olympics Illinois provides opportunities for more than 22,500 athletes, more than 20,000 Young Athletes, 45,000 volunteers and thousands more people statewide through 18 Area programs in all 102 counties of the state.

"Special Olympics began in Illinois with the first games at Soldier Field (Chicago) in July 1968 thanks to the efforts of Eunice Kennedy Shriver and her peers. There are now more than 4.5 million athletes in 170 countries. Special Olympics is financially sound with diverse revenue streams, a thorough annual budget process and increasing organizational revenue streams. Special Olympics Illinois does not charge athletes or their families to participate in the program."

Elder sister Katie Hazelwonder said she admires Hannah for signing up for the "Plunge."

"She has the biggest heart you've ever seen," Katie said in part in an email to The Telegraph. "I can't imagine jumping in just once, but this event is not for the light hearted and I have no doubt that Hannah's huge heart will keep her plenty warm. Hannah has talked about doing the Polar Plunge for years and is honored to have the opportunity to participate this year and help a wonderful organization change lives."

The daughter of Don and Cathy Hazelwonder of Alton, Hannah hopes to work for a federal law enforcement agency after earning her degree, a goal she has had since she was 12 years old.

Reach Linda N. Weller at 618-208-6450 or on Twitter @Linda_Weller



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