By Chris McManes
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Catholic University head football coach Mike Gutelius issued a challenge to his team: If they raised at least $3,000 to support Special Olympics DC, he would participate in the Polar Plunge.
"Next year, I'll have to make it $5,000," he joked prior to jumping into a portable pool of water at Cardinal Stadium on Friday night.
Gutelius was among 120 people, mostly Catholic student-athletes, who took the plunge. Many wore their team jerseys or pajamas.
Catholic University is in its 18th year supporting Special Olympics and sixth hosting the Polar Plunge. Nicole Preston, Special Olympics DC president and CEO, said this year's plunge drew 280 pledges and raised $33,464.
"It was a great success," Preston said. "We're very excited to have Catholic participate every year, and this year we got even better participation. The football coach plunged, which is exciting. The athletes are always excited to see the coaches get in."
Over the last three years, the Catholic athletics department has helped raise $88,480 for Special Olympics D.C., including $31,199 in 2017 and $23,817 in 2018.
Special Olympics, celebrating its 50th anniversary, provides sports, health and inclusion programs for those with intellectual or closely related developmental disabilities. Special Olympics DC offers year-round sports training and competition to more than 1,600 adults and children in the nation's capital. Everything is provided free to participants.
That's why events like the "Freezin' for a Reason" Polar Plunge are so important.
"I feel like here at Catholic, we're very community oriented, especially the athletic teams," freshman golfer Alexander Freedman said. "All the athletes that came down today really showed a lot of heart, jumping in the cold water for a good cause. I really think it just shows what Catholic is all about: helping the community, giving back."
Grace Moclair, a freshman Cardinal women's lacrosse player, was making her first jump.
"Our team is really big on service," Moclair said. "We not only strive to be good players and good teammates, but also good people. So, our team always makes it a really big thing to do service. It's just one of the many things we do. We love doing it."
Catholic encourages all of its students to do things that benefit others. The athletes on its 25 varsity teams lead the way.
"It's not just about being good at your sport," Freedman said. "It's about being good in the field, good in the classroom and giving back to as many people as we can."
Friday's event also drew athletes from Georgetown and George Washington.
At GW, sophomore rower David Herman said money was collected among teammates for the coaches and team captain who took the leap. He jokingly said the team was looking forward to getting some "payback on our coaches."
Herman enjoyed coming together with athletes from neighboring institutions.
"We all focus on our individual schools and our rivalries," he said. "But when we can get together as a D.C. community to help a good cause, it's really nice that we can do something that affects more than just us."
Freedman agrees: "I really think it was awesome to see other schools like GW and Georgetown come down and show their support."
Prior to heading outside, athletes and about 20 Special Olympians had a pep rally on Franny Murray Court. Activities included the "Electric Slide," basketball shooting contests (and prizes) and a dance face-off in which an Olympian schooled a Catholic football player. The crowd went wild.
"This is a good vibe with all the athletes and everybody together," Gutelius said. "It's what Catholic athletics should be."
The Cardinal baseball team raised the most money at $7,017. Individually, field hockey junior Carly Philbin was tops with $1,677.
Catholic University has been hosting Special Olympics events since 2002. On Friday afternoon, it held a Polar Plunge for middle school and high school students.
Preston agreed that the university is more than a Special Olympics supporter. It is a partner.
"We are grateful and blessed to do our programs and events here on campus," she said. "Catholic is always wonderful about working with us. It's really a wonderful place to welcome our athletes."
Sabrina Scott, a junior member of the Cardinal softball team and president of Catholic's Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, helps to organize several Special Olympics DC events on campus.
"A lot of the athletes have come here to play basketball, play bocce ball, play a bunch of different sports," Scott said. "As student-athletes, we volunteer with the [Special Olympians] and help run the games they play."
The Polar Plunge, according to Scott, "is our big fundraiser for the year. We organize all the student-athletes at Cathlic, raise money and try to make sure things run smoothly."
Special Olympics DC relies on hundreds of volunteers and partner organizations. Several members of the Metropolitan Police Department were on hand Friday. Dunkin Donuts handed out coffee.
"What I've found through everything we do is when people volunteer, then they're hooked," Preston said. "They really get a good feeling of working with the athletes and seeing what it means to them. That's why people are engaged and excited about participating."
Count Scott among them.
"It's a great cause to volunteer with," she said. "So, if you ever have the chance to volunteer with Special Olympics, you'll get to work with great people. The [Olympians] have a lot of great stories, and it's a lot of fun."
Past Catholic-hosted plunges have been so cold that ice had to be chipped off the pool water. That wasn't the case Friday. Temperatures at jump time were in the high 50s. Catholic assistant equipment manager Marty Murray called it a "lukewarm plunge."
That was just fine with Gutelius, who did a 360 off the platform in the No. 68 road football jersey he wore as a Cardinal in 1991. "I chose the right year to do it," he said with a smile.
Gutelius was pleased to see so many Catholic student-athletes supporting Special Olympics.
"It's a reflection of the type of athletes we have," he said. "It makes me feel good about what we're doing."