City Life

Meet three winter champions

Embracing the elements comes naturally

Taking the plunge

The first time Tony Schwabe and his daughter, Lindsay, participated in the Polar Plunge to benefit Special Olympics of Wisconsin was in 2003, and Tony remembers that day was the coldest one of the entire winter.

There was a beer tent, he recalls, and he stopped by for a little shot of courage before jumping into Lake Monona. “Plunge juice,” he says.

Lindsay, who is a Special Olympian, wasn’t nervous or scared at all, her dad recalls.

But once they took the plunge, Lindsay may have set a speed record in exiting the water.

“By the time I got out,” Tony says, “she was already sprinting for the hot tub. I think she lost a shoe.”

Yes, the Polar Plunge is cold. Really cold. It is also a great deal of fun and a tremendous fundraiser for Special Olympics. Last year’s event in Madison drew 1,500 participants and raised more than $340,000.

Few families have embraced it with more enthusiasm than the Schwabes, although they took a break after that first year. By 2011, Tony had warmed sufficiently to plunge again. Lindsay and her stepmother, Paula, Tony’s wife, took on organizational duties and assembled a team of plungers—named Lindsay’s Big Chill—that has numbered as high as 21 people.

It speaks to the camaraderie that develops among Polar Plunge participants, something the Schwabes feel is a large part of its allure.

Their team—which has raised $33,000 for Special Olympics in the six Polar Plunges since 2011—will don their neon green T-shirts and participate again in this season’s event, scheduled for Olin Park on Feb. 18.

Tony will plunge; Lindsay and Paula will be cheering for him and the others. “I consider myself the brains of the operation,” Paula says. “Smart enough not to go in.”

Lindsay, who turned 29 in November and has been a Special Olympian for two decades, took a plunge of another kind in 2013 when she and her parents went to Washington, D.C., and Lindsay met with state lawmakers to encourage funding for Special Olympics.

Frozen in time

Brad Mastenbrook and Rich Kerns had shared a hockey friendship for years—Mastenbrook coached Kerns’ sons at Stoughton High School—when at some point they reminisced about childhood, and pond hockey.

It was the best kind of nostalgia: long days of pickup games with buddies, the sound of skates and sticks scraping on the ice, the walk home by moonlight, exhaustion.

It was all so sweet a memory that five or six years ago, Mastenbrook and Kerns decided to bring it back.

Now the Mad City Pond Hockey Championships are in their fourth year—this year’s event runs Jan. 20-22—and the founders are once again happy—and exhausted.

“It’s a tremendous amount of work,” Mastenbrook says. “You have no idea until you get into it.”

The first year, 41 teams—up to seven players, with four on the ice at any one time—signed up for the tournament at Vilas Park. Last year’s event, held at Esser Park in Middleton (also this year’s site), drew 69 teams, or more than 450 individuals, in 18 divisions.

Mastenbrook says they draw from around the Midwest, including teams from Chicago, but also include teams from the coasts.

“A lot of UW–Madison alumni” participate, he says, because the pond hockey tournament gives them a reason to come back to town.

The dedicated outreach by Mastenbrook and Kerns has in a few short years turned the event from a pond hockey tournament into a community-wide shindig. The Madison Fire Department sells chili and brats and pockets the proceeds. A raffle of signed NHL jerseys and other gifts raises money for the Carbone Cancer Center at UW–Madison. This year, Labatt’s is sponsoring a “blue zone” on the ice for spectators complete with beer and music and warming fires.

This year, too, there will be engraved trophies for the winners. “Kind of like the Stanley Cup,” Mastenbrook says.

Cold is how he rolls

It was some 15 years ago when Aaron Crandall, a Janesville native, moved to Madison and began what would become a steadfast routine: riding his bicycle to work, no matter whether it is July or January.

Was it the crisp fresh air that prompted him to commute by bicycle in winter, which not a lot of people were doing in 2002? Or maybe it was the beneficial exercise, or just wanting to be different?

For Crandall, it was none of those things.

“I found out how expensive parking was,” he says.

Crandall worked downtown for the state of Wisconsin. He now works on campus in research administration at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, commuting by bike from the west side.

Over the years, his winter cycling has grown more sophisticated, governed by two guiding principles: safety and comfort.

Crandall encourages winter bike commuters to dress warmly, exposing no skin, and to consider studded tires, which can help bicyclists stay upright when dealing with snow or ice.

“I got studded tires four years ago and haven’t fallen since,” Crandall says.

Crandall has not availed himself of a “fat bike” that is suitable for winter conditions, or the Bar Mitts that attach to handlebars for superior hand warmth. But he’s glad to see such options available—it shows the growing popularity of winter biking.

In 2010, to promote safe winter biking, Crandall created a Facebook page, Madison Bike Winter, which has more than 1,300 likes and assists in promoting a fall fashion show about what works and doesn’t in terms of winter bike clothing. In February, Bike Winter promotes a bike-to-work day. Coffee and food are available at selected spots on the bike paths, making it seem like winter cycling has almost gone mainstream. There are still challenges. One year, they were frying bacon—and it froze. 

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