It was 14 degrees at 10:15 a.m. Saturday when Phil Farris climbed onto the Polar Dunk Booth platform, water frozen to the ladder beneath his hands and feet.
Jefferson City firefighters warned it was too cold before they'd finished filling the tank. An officer rushed across the parking lot as he realized Farris was crazy enough to do it. The long-time polar plunger did not haul a dunking booth to the Capital Mall Hy-Vee for nothing.
Farris is one of two members of Absolute Zero Polar Plunge Team attempting to raise at least $2,500 to participate in the 2018 Super Plunge Lake of the Ozarks. The team participates in several polar plunge events throughout the year to benefit the Missouri Special Olympics. Teammate Jessica Wells was hoping to raise about $3,000 from the dunking booth and said they will try again when it is expected to be a lot warmer, starting 11 a.m. Jan. 20 at Hy-Vee, 3721 W. Truman Boulevard.
When the first ball connected with the target and Farris fell into the water, he said it felt like landing on pins and needles. And yet, Farris was bold enough to get dunked three more times before he climbed out for the last time with water freezing in his hair. "I was shivering for a good hour after that," he said.
By midday, the retired prison guard was standing tall, smoking a cigar and accepting donations in the Hy-Vee parking lot by people who said they were paying him not to get in the water again.
Although they make their goal for the day, Wells said the event had been worthwhile, raising $650. She looked forward to doing far better in a week when she will get a chance to get in the dunking booth.
Wells said her uncle had Down syndrome and passed away shortly before she was born. She grew up next to his best friend, who also had Down syndrome, and decided to participate in polar plunges to support people like them.
Farris said he started doing polar plunges more than 20 years ago as a guard at the Missouri State Penitentiary, which supported the Special Olympics. He since retired from the Jefferson City Correctional Center but still works part-time helping those in assisted living programs.
Farris said his four dunks will be good practice for the 24 plunges he will take in 24 hours Feb. 23-24 in the 2018 Super Plunge. He already has a lot of experience, though, with 23 polar plunges and five super plunges under his belt. Wells joins him with 11 polar plunges and two super plunges. Farris' daughter, Carilyn Farris, has participated in eight polar plunges and looks forward to joining her father in a super plunge in the near future.
Wells said the dunk booth is probably the team's strangest fundraising event but certainly not their only one. Wells has raised money through bartending and pizza parties. Last year, Farris raised money by hosting a Cops on Top event in which law enforcement officers spent 24 cold hours atop Capitol Plaza Hotel. They are also planning a pancake breakfast.
The teammates said despite the challenges of raising money and the discomfort of jumping into cold water, it is all worth it when they see the faces of the Special Olympic athletes as they attend the Super Plunge.
"It's a lot of work, but it's a lot of fun," Wells said. "The whole point is to get cold. It's a sacrifice we are making, and it's miserable. But it's so fun, too, because you get this adrenaline rush, and it's for a good cause. I just feel we can suffer a couple days out of the year for people who have different challenges than we do on a daily basis."