Taking the plunge

March 2016

Warren Giertuga is a committed man. He’s a husband, father, coach and a person who can be counted on to make things happen. He can even inspire hundreds of people to jump through the ice into the frigid waters of Lake Superior for fun and charity! April 2, 2016 will mark Warren’s 7th year as the coordinator of the annual Thunder Bay Polar Plunge, raising funds and awareness for Special Olympics, through the Ontario Law Enforcement Torch Run.

During working hours, Warren is employed as a corrections officer with the Ministry of Correctional Services. It’s a job that can be surrounded with negativity because the people who are incarcerated don’t want to be there. Warren realizes that everyone deserves respect and he works hard on the job to treat people – the inmates and fellow workers - the way he would want to be treated.

Because his work can be stressful, Warren is grateful to bond with fellow members of the law enforcement community. Police, corrections officers, probation officers, conservation officers and EMS workers gather and do charity projects as a way to get them to do something that helps them bond in a positive way. For the Law Enforcement Thunder Bay group, the Special Olympics Torch Run has been their focus and Warren has been “on the job” for 17 years.

Warren’s involvement with the Torch Run got him to experience the importance of the Special Olympics for people with intellectual challenges and their families. The Special Olympics offers sporting options for people locally and also raises funds to send athletes to competitions provincially, nationally and internationally. When he went to the World Special Olympics in Boise, Idaho to do some promotional work, Warren was introduced to people with intellectual disabilities. “When I was a child, the children that I met with special needs had to go to different schools. There was very little integration or interaction with them. I was nervous when I met the athletes because I didn’t know what to say or how to act. Then I realized that I should just treat them the way I’d want to be treated.” After that experience in Boise, Warren wanted to do more for local athletes. He took the lead on the Polar Plunge, an event that Special Olympics hosts throughout Ontario. The first Polar Plunge was held on Lake Superior 7 years ago. That first year they raised $11,000 and the host venue was the MacKenzie Inn on Lakeshore Drive. The amassed plungers ran to the hole cut in the ice. This dash was memorable for its chaos but now the event is more organized. Today, plungers have individual jump times. No more chaotic “mass plunges”! Over the years, many things have changed - the number of people participating, the money raised and the location. Last year, the Thunder Bay Polar Plunge at Marina Park raised $80,000 half of which came from school aged children. More than 300 people of all ages participated last year.

Warren is not only the Master of Ceremonies he is also a Plunger, but he now makes sure he jumps only after all the teams have completed their plunges. Teams register together and are given a jump time so friends and family can be close to the hole in the ice with their cameras poised! Once folks emerge from the icy waters, they wrap themselves up in blankets and head to the warm surroundings of the Prince Arthur Hotel for après-plunge celebrations.

Safety is paramount. From day one, Warren was able to secure Mike Abraham, a diver and a couple of his friends, including Len Mason, from Wally’s Diving to assist. They stay, ready and poised in what looks like a hot tub, except for the fact that they are wearing wet suits. Although folks of all ages take the plunge, most are in their 20’s and 30’s. Even some of the Special Olympians take the plunge or someone from their family raises pledges and jumps for them.

Although this is an El Niño year, Warren isn’t worried about having no ice to cut through; it just means that it will be a little easier than the years he has had to use a 36 inch-long auger to make the pilot hole.

Even though the event has a carnival feel, Warren knows that the Special Olympians are the reason he works so hard to raise funds. “I’ve been involved with many fundraisers, and I can see and feel how this one positively impacts the athletes. It gives back to me because I can see the tangible results, which is extremely rewarding. I know who is being helped by going to provincial games or who is involved in one of the local events.” This year they are hoping for more corporate involvement as sponsors and plungers. A $100,000 target may be do-able this year.

As well as his family, Warren has inspired fellow members of the law enforcement community to help out. As a dad, he believes in volunteering as a family. “I’m glad my sons are involved with the Polar Plunge and Special Olympics. Being around the athletes in the Special Olympics organization helps them to be empathetic to others and more accepting of all people.” Born and raised in Thunder Bay, Warren is busy. He feels that you make a life by what you give. He tells his kids that “everything good you do in your life, you will get some benefit from.”

His efforts don’t go unnoticed. Warren Giertuga was the 94th person to be inducted into the Special Olympics Hall of Fame in Toronto. With only one or two people inducted every year, Warren is in a prestigious group. He also is the only Corrections Officer in the province to be inducted. It was a very proud event when he and his wife, Jo-Anne travelled to the ceremony.

Warren has a special bond with the athletes. He appreciates how hard they work to get better at their sport and enjoy the benefits of meeting others through sport. He cheers on various athletes at their events but doesn’t interfere with the work of the coaches. He encourages other volunteers and members of the public to support the athletes on the sidelines and is quick to high-five all competitors for a job welldone. His encouragement means a lot to the participants because he is an awardwinning athlete himself. At the World Police and Fire Games in Vancouver in 2009, Warren placed in the Top Ten in his age category in the world.

With the Polar Plunge just weeks away, followed by the Can-Am Police-Fire Games that will be held in Thunder Bay July 16th to 24th, (he is the 5- and 10-km run coordinator for that competition), Warren Giertuga is understandably busy. He uses his winning spirit and enthusiasm to help make our community a more welcoming and inclusive place. He encourages all of us to “take the plunge” to do the same. This year’s Thunder Bay Polar Plunge is set for Saturday, April 2. Festivities start at 2 pm at Prince Arthur’s Landing at Marina Park. For more information, to register, donate or to see more photos of plungers past go to www.polarplunge.ca

Nancy Angus is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Bayview. Contact her at nangus@shaw.ca

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