Hundreds of people rang in the new year Wednesday morning with a splash at the annual polar plunge on Lake Minnetonka.
This year marked the 30th plunge for charity hosted by the Minnesota community fitness group ALARC.
In costume, swimsuits and robes, participants huddled in line on the Port of Excelsior dock for their chance to jump into the icy lake. But not everyone was quite ready for the challenge.
“There was a lot of terrible buildup,” said Riley Nelson of Ashby, Minn. “I was pretty cold. I didn’t bring a towel. I wasn’t very prepared.”
Like many who take the plunge, Nelson, 20, learned of the event from someone who heads to the lake each New Year’s Day.
“My friend Shawn actually roped me into this,” he said. “It’s for a good cause. He said it’s kind of a tradition he does, so I said I’ll come along.” Nelson said he plans to be back next year.
The plunge has become a holiday tradition for many, with participants ranging from 8 to 80 years old. More than 30 participants jumped in Wednesday for the 10th year in a row, a streak that earned each a “shark belt.”
For Mackenzie Smith of Excelsior, the plunge is a family affair with a great payoff.
“My dad’s done it for 17 years,” Smith said after her jump. “I’ve done it since I was in elementary school. It’s just fun to say you did it. It gives you a reason to get up and get going. It’s for a great cause. I think that’s the really important part.”
Proceeds from the annual event primarily benefit wounded warrior programs, with a smaller sum going to Excelsior Police and Fire Departments, whose members keep participants safe on New Year’s Day, said Harley Feldman, event director. Most of this year’s proceeds will support veteran suicide prevention.
The plunge got its start, Feldman said, when co-founder Bill Wenmark had a few friends from California in town for the New Year’s holiday.
“They said, ‘We always jump in the ocean on New Year’s Day,’ and he said, ‘Well, that’s no problem.’ They ran down to the lakeshore in Wayzata and found an open spot in the water and eight of them went in, and that’s what started this whole process,” Feldman said.
Over the years, the event has expanded, with more than 400 participants this year. At times, there have been nearly 1,000.
Father-and-daughter duo Bill and Keira Keegan of Excelsior have been jumping together for years.
“When I was 7, my dad brought me out here to jump. Ever since, it’s been kind of a tradition,” said Keira, now 13. “I’m not gonna miss a year, and if I don’t miss a year, I might be the youngest orca.”
Orca is the highest ranking for ice dive participants, marking 20 dives in a row.
“If she doesn’t miss a year, she’ll be an orca when she’s 27, which they said would be the youngest orca ever,” her father said. “It’s been our challenge, but she can’t miss a year. When she goes off to college, we’ll have to make sure she gets back just for the ice dive.”
Wednesday morning’s plunge was Bill’s ninth and Keira’s seventh.
“It’s always hard to get up in the morning, but we’re always happy after we do it,” Bill Keegan said.
Feldman is proud of how the event has cemented itself in the lives of so many over the years.
“It’s pretty amazing that it’s so well-known now,” he said. “You can tell from all the people that come by and watch it that it’s just become a real Excelsior community event.”
One 5-year-old from Excelsior, a boy named Nash, was one of the locals on the sidelines. He jumped up and down, excitedly cheering his dad on from a viewing spot out on the lake.
“I really like him,” Nash said, boasting about his father. “It was kind of funny.”
When asked if he wanted to follow in his dad’s footsteps and take the plunge one day, Nash said “maybe,” with palpable uncertainty.
The 31st annual ice dive will be held on Jan. 1, 2021.
Zoë Jackson • 612-673-7112