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'Cold water challenge' new trend for teens that poses risks

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By Helmut Schmidt / The Forum

FARGO – It used to be an insult to tell someone to go jump in a lake.

Now, it's apparently a challenge to have fun, often with a hook requiring a donation to charity.

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What has been dubbed the “cold water challenge,” a YouTube and Facebook social media craze that has swept across much of the nation, has come to roost in the Red River Valley.

Just ask Alicia Severson, whose 16-year-old daughter took part in a plunge without mom’s permission.

Severson said her daughter, who attends Northern Cass High School, witnessed two friends jump into a cold outdoor pool on May 3, and was promptly nominated to do an outdoor plunge by them.

Severson objected to the idea and said her daughter replied that she absolutely had to do it because it was for breast cancer awareness.

“It’s absolutely ridiculous,” Severson said she told her daughter. “What does jumping into a lake have to do with breast cancer awareness? It’s stupidity awareness!”

Less than two weeks later, Severson said her daughter hopped into a small pond near Hunter with a friend.

“Apparently, there are more pictures on Facebook of HER actually doing it,” Severson wrote in an email, vowing to fully clear up the channels of communication with her child.

Dangerous challenge

Principals and other officials at West Fargo High School, Moorhead High School and Fargo North, South and Davies high schools say they haven’t heard anything in the halls or passed along by teachers about the cold water challenges among their students. Local police officials also say they haven’t taken any reports on the challenges, but they worry about the dangers.

The challenges got attention here after a Valley City man who was visiting his son and grandchildren in Fargo’s Osgood development ended up possibly saving a teen’s life by pulling her from the Sheyenne River.

Rich Plecity, 64, said he was walking his dogs about 8:30 p.m. Saturday near the bike path bridge over the Sheyenne between the Osgood and the Carmell Place developments. That’s when he heard a group of teens screaming for help.

When he got to the bridge, he saw a girl in the water holding onto a rope. Most of the other kids scattered, he said, though one stayed behind.

Plecity said the girl, who looked to be 15 or 16 years old, was in a swimsuit and was too cold to swim to shore or pull herself up out of the water to the steel girder and wood bridge.

“She said, ‘Help me, please! Help me!’ ” he said.

Plecity said he tried to pull the girl up to the bridge, but that didn’t work. He then climbed over the wooden rail of the bridge and taking the rope, stepped sideways on the bridge girders, working around a couple of large beams, until he made the east bank of the river. There, he pulled her up onto the bank.

The girl then grabbed her sweat clothes and took off with her friend.

“She wouldn’t have made it. She was way too cold. I think she would have drowned if I hadn’t been there. … She was shivering,” he said.

Plecity said the mother of the girl later went door-to-door in the Osgood neighborhood to find out who saved her daughter. The woman then called Plecity on Monday and thanked him.

Phenomenon ‘huge’

Though area police haven’t taken reports of what are sometimes also called “polar plunges” after the long-popular midwinter charity fundraisers that involve a short dip, they are aware of the phenomenon.

Moorhead police Lt. Tory Jacobson said he’s seen videos on YouTube about the cold water challenges and said his nephews have done them.

“It’s huge. It’s absolutely huge. It’s across the country,” Jacobson said.

He said “a ton of kids in Moorhead,” perhaps hundreds of them, have done the challenges.

“I know there’s a lot of kids. I have high school-age kids. They’ve showed me videos of people who have done it,” Jacobson said. “It’s common amongst kids for sure. I think it’s only the adults that are clueless that it’s going on.”

Fargo Police Lt. Joel Vettel said the issue is on the department’s radar, even though no cases have been reported. Vettel said jumping into cold water can lead to death from drowning.

“Anyone who has been in cold water understands the gasp that you take when you jump into cold water. It’s involuntary,” he said.

If the person’s face is underwater, that draws water into the lungs, he said. “It’s called the death gasp.”

He added that area rivers are dangerous. The banks of the Red River are steep in some places, and its clay-like soil creates a muck that can hold someone who has dived in, he said.

Mike Reitan, the West Fargo assistant police chief, said hypothermia is also an issue. Plus, the current is strong in the steep-banked Sheyenne River.

“Someone jumping off a bridge, there’s a possibility the current in the river can take them downstream” before they can grab a rope or get out where they had planned, he said.

West Fargo police Sgt. Jason Anderson said he’s seen cold water challenges on Facebook, but nothing that includes local youths.

Still, trying to do anything like that in the Sheyenne, which is at minor flood stage and not only cold but moving fast – nearly 1,200 cubic feet of water per second – is dangerous, he said.

“To put yourself in the river on a rope? That’s just a good way to get hurt, or dead,” Anderson said.

Reports indicate that one recent drowning death in the region may be tied to the phenomenon.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune and other media outlets reported that friends of a 16-year-old found dead in a Carver County lake earlier this month said he may have been attempting a cold water challenge.

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