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Polar plungers pledge dollars for cancer

On Monday, Ethan Schubert and Willie Bjortomt braved the cold temperatures and blustery winds to jump into Lake Superior. They were participating in the 24-hour Polar Plunge ­Challenge – a cancer fundraiser that has taken social media by storm. The men will post a video of their plunge and challenge two others to do the same. Photo by Jim Erickson.1 / 2
Dripping wet and chilled by just-above-freezing air and water temperatures, Ethan Schubert and Willie Bjortomt of Two Harbors, run back to their vehicle after completing the 24-hour Polar Plunge Challenge. They have each challenged two friends to be the next to take the plunge. Monies raised are donated to cancer charities. Photo by LaReesa Sandretsky.2 / 2

Update May 2, 5 p.m.: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a cautionary press release today after an employee stopped a young woman from jumping into the Duluth ship canal on Thursday. She said she was participating in the 'Cold Water Challenge for Cancer.' Friday's press release cautioned against jumping into cold water, citing the ""mammalian diving reflex" or what is also called the "gasp reflex," when the shock of the cold water causes the person jumping to take water into their lungs. According to scientists, because of the reflex, humans “drown” when the automatic reflex to breathe forces us to inhale water into our lungs; suffocation, unconsciousness, and death follow." They also pointed out that it is often dangerous and against local ordinances to swim in federal navigation waters.

0 Talk about it

On Monday in Two Harbors, it was just 37 degrees. Wind gusts of up to 30 mph barraged the city and waves reaching 14 feet crashed onto the Lake Superior shore.

At 2:15 p.m., two young men sprinted from the pebbles of Burlington Bay beach into the freezing water of Lake Superior.

“I instantly felt winded. My brain hurt,” said Ethan Schubert, 23, one of the swimmers. “I wouldn’t want to drink something that cold. It was definitely the coldest I’ve ever been in.”

He and Willie Bjortomt, 20, both of Two Harbors, were taking part in a new viral campaign, dubbed the “24-Hour Polar Plunge Challenge.” Their plunge was intended to raise money for cancer-related nonprofits and thousands of other people around the country are taking part.

“You take a video of yourself doing the plunge and you nominate two other people,” Schubert explained. He was nominated for the plunge by a former roommate at the College of St. Scholastica.

Those who accepted the challenge then post the videos on Facebook, where they can tag the friends they want to nominate.

Schubert and Bjortomt both promised to donate $25 if the four people they challenged complete plunge. Both said they will donate the money either way, but the ice-cold dare makes it more fun.

The charitable contributions aren’t enforced, but Schubert said his friends have been posting snapshots of their receipts to prove they’ve made donations.

He said the campaign takes the concept of going viral and adds a philanthropic aspect to it. Stories and videos “go viral” when they are viewed by a large number of people in a short amount of time. Last friday, Schubert

saw a friend post a plunge video on Facebook and by Sunday he had already been nominated.

“It’s more of a social media thing and it keeps going,” he said. 

A quick internet search traces the beginning of the 24-hour plunge challenge to a baby in Missouri. Baby Landon was diagnosed with cancer and his family started a Facebook group on March 30 to raise money for his treatment. People began taking the challenge and it caught on. In just a month, the plunge concept has taken on a life of its own. On the North Shore, nonprofit donations are still a part of the equation. In some parts of the country, the challenge is just for fun.

Law enforcement officials around the country have cautioned plungers to be careful – the frigid challenge is being considered a factor in the death of a 32-year-old man in New Hampshire. More organized plunges, like the annual Polar Bear Plunge in Duluth benefitting the Special Olympics, are staffed with medical professionals.

The cold and danger didn’t deter Bjortomt from agreeing when Schubert asked him to jump in with him. Both his mother and grandmother battled cancer and won.

“It meant a lot to me to go out and raise money for cancer survivors,” Bjortomt said.

He didn’t seem eager to do the plunge again, though.

“It was a little too wavy and a little too cold to do it again,” Bjortomt said.

On Monday afternoon, Schubert was warming up at home and researching which charities would receive his two $25 donations. One granting wishes to terminally ill children caught his eye.

“I think that’s a really cool thing to donate to,” he said.

LaReesa Sandretsky
LaReesa Sandretsky is a Two Harbors High School graduate and Duluth native who began working at the News-Chronicle in 2012 as a reporter. She took over as editor in 2014. She covers County Board, including the Lake County broadband project.
(218) 834-2141