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The hearty and hardy take plunge for Special Olympics

(MCT) — Wearing a pink tutu, gray leggings, pink T-shirt, Cubs gym shorts and camouflage party hat, Craig Neth wasn't worried about plunging into slushy Lake Michigan on Sunday.

"I'm more scared of the costume than I am the water," said the federal government worker from Oak Lawn. "This is what happens when you have females design your costume."

Neth, whose co-workers were to blame for the outfit, was among more than 1,000 people who splashed around the frigid lake to support the Special Olympics. Organizers hoped the annual Polar Plunge would raise $1 million for the group's sports programs and transportation for people with mental disabilities.

The costume was far from the most outrageous at North Avenue Beach, where the water and air temperatures flirted with freezing. Some plungers opted for body paint and others hockey uniforms or St. Patrick's Day accessories. More than a few middle-aged men displayed pasty beer guts.

Jesse Puente described his get-up as a "polar bear warrior" — white fur Ugg boots, weightlifting belt and headdress crafted from an eviscerated teddy bear. The shield in his right hand featured another stuffed bear head.

A three-time plunger, Puente said the event is fun and personal. The 43-year-old said he has a great-nephew with autism and a nephew with Down syndrome. He planned to yell the boys' names while running into the water.

"They remind me that we should be grateful for everything," he said.

Puente's costume aside, Sunday was a typical day at the beach in many ways. The sun was bright, the sand well-packed and the water calm. Perfect, if only the calendar read "July" instead of "March."

Politicians and cast members from NBC's "Chicago Fire" were among the first to dive in. The water was shallower than usual, organizers said, and plows had to clear out beachfront snow to create an icy pool. Many divers elected to run in and out in a matter of seconds, but others lingered and dunked their heads in the lake. By the time they raced back up the beach to the warming tents, many had ice crystals forming on their clothes and hair.

Lisa Ousley-Taylor, a special education teacher from Flossmoor who raised $190, planned to go in ankle deep. Ousley-Taylor said she was there for her students, whom she's been taking to Special Olympics events since the 1980s. Dressed as a sunflower and plunging with other Chicago Public Schools teachers, Ousley-Taylor was pleased to know that the chilly weekend would benefit the kids in her classroom.

Special Olympics "changes everything about the participant," she said. "It gives them self-confidence."

As it came time to dive, Ousley-Taylor could have benefited from some of that herself.

"I'm terrified," she said.

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