University of Okoboji Winter Games – Okoboji, IA
Winter carnivals have long been bright days in the darkest months for cold weather inhabitants. They’re popular in places where winter is particularly long or severe, and are held all over the world in places like St. Paul, Minnesota, Canada, Scandinavia, and even in Sapporo, Japan. Winter carnivals are a chance for the people who’ve been pent up inside and haven’t seen much sun in a few months, to get outside and partake in some much needed outdoor activities. Most winter carnivals involve traditional winter pursuits such as ice carving, snow carving, ice hockey, skating, skiing and dog sledding. Most.
The University of Okoboji Winter Games is not your typical winter carnival. That’s because the University of Okoboji is not a real educational institution and the events included in the Winter Games are not the typical winter carnival events. Instead of ice hockey, skiing, or ice carving, there was broomball, flag football, and boot hockey. Instead of skating, curling, or dog sledding, there was softball, polish horseshoes, 5/10ks, and snowmobile races. There was also a polar bear plunge during the games, where one of the Couple of Sports got a little too close for comfort, but more on that later.
The University of Okoboji was founded sometime in the early 1970s. The fondness of the term by locals was capitalized on by local businessmen, who copyrighted the term and began selling t-shirts, bumper stickers, and other U of O gear at their store, The Three Sons. It’s common among those claiming to be alumni to display university decor, such as car decals and t-shirts without informing unsuspecting out-of-staters that the university is fictitious. The name is now also used in connection with several annual fund-raising events for charity, including bike rides, a marathon, and the Winter Games. A local radio station, KUOO, has joined in on the joke as well and refers to itself as “Campus Radio”. As for how the games themselves started, according to their website, ”It all started with a couple local guys and the organization of small broomball tournament. 30 years later, with the support of hundreds of community members, the small broomball tournament in 1981 has turned into an annual winter festival drawing thousands of people from throughout the Mid-West.”
Going along with the “university” theme, the Winter Games participants and viewers are predominantly college kids. They flock to the Iowa Great Lakes region during the Winter Games weekend from colleges like University of Iowa, University of Nebraska, Iowa State University, Drake University, University of South Dakota, University of Minnesota, and Northern Iowa University. College students come to enjoy the tailgate-like atmosphere, as well as to participate in the games, many of which are similar to intramural games. But instead of playing those sports indoors, the Winter Games is an outlet for people to get outside, experience and embrace the weather, and play sports with an extra layer of a “liquid coat” on.
The weather is a major factor in holding the Winter Games of course, but it can also change how they’re played. As well all are aware, the weather across the country is unseasonable with warm temperatures across the country. Don’t get me wrong, it was cold (32 degrees with a bit of a windchill on Saturday morning), but it hadn’t been cold enough for the lake to ice over completely. Not wanting the massive crowds to take an unexpected polar plunge, most of the games were moved off of the lake to different locations. Even the much anticipated snowmobile races on the lake were cancelled, although you wouldn’t have noticed with so many snowmobilers racing back and forth all day long.
Undeterred by the change of scenery, participants took to the fields, snowbanks, and even the sturdier parts of the lake to compete in 3 days of athletic competition. The highlight was certainly the broomball and polar plunge, but we also enjoyed the bean bag toss, polish horseshoes, and boot hockey. The bean bag toss is your standard tailgating bag toss game, only in tournament format. The real athleticism came when deciding whether or not to wear gloves while throwing the bags. Gloves off meant frozen hands tossing the bags without much finesse while also picking up the bags out of the snow. Gloves on meant warmer hands, but even less “touch” on your throws. Tough decisions, I know.
And then there’s Polish Horseshoes. Unless you know what it is already, its moniker tells nothing about what the activity actually is. We made our way to the horseshoe tent expecting to see horseshoes being played in the snow, or at least something close to that. But instead we were treated to an even more exciting game. A game where two beer bottles stand on opposing poles and teammates throw frisbees across the snow trying to knock their opponents beer bottle from its perch. Another throwing activity made much harder by the cold temperatures, but teams powered through and were able to successfully knock a beer bottle off of a pole with a frisbee time and time again. Now, I know that the Polish are fond of beer (because aren’t we all?), but is frisbee a Polish thing? (The short answer: no) Oh, wait…the game is supposed to be spelled “Poleish”? See, it’s not racist at all!
Boot hockey is essentially hockey played on shoes, so no real surprises there. We loved it mostly because we felt that we both could actually play this derivation of the sport. As neither of us are renowned (or even decent) ice skaters, boot hockey would be a perfectly acceptable substitute. Because it’s still on ice, no one can pick up too much speed, as it’s a lot harder to stop on the ice with shoes on. You’ve got to play within a safe level, or else you’d be sliding all over the ice. Now, we’re both partial to roller hockey because of our childhood exploits on the streets (and also because of this Mighty Ducks roller hockey scene), but we find boot hockey an acceptable alternative.
And finally a sport that we’ve already known and loved from our intramural days at the University of Michigan: Broomball. Broomball is played in a hockey rink, either indoors or outdoors (this time outdoors, on a not-so-snowy-or-icy piece of land). The game of broomball is played very similarly to hockey but instead of a puck and a hockey stick, players hit a small ball around the ice with a stick called a “broom.” The broom may have a wooden or aluminum shaft and has a rubber-molded triangular head similar in shape to that of a regular broom. In the old days, players would have actually used a household broom as their weapon of choice, but the sport has evolved enough to have their own special sticks manufactured. Unlike boot hockey, the light snow on the grass was not enough to slow any of the competitors down. The games were fierce, the action was intense, and the play was speedy. The conditions made for great broomball play, and was definitely the most competitive event. The lighthearted festivities of the weekend were put on hold by the broomballers, who put everything on the line to win the coveted broomball championship.
While broomball was the athletic highlight for us, we also thoroughly enjoyed the polar plunge. Treating the viewing of this event as mental preparation for our own upcoming polar plunge. we were eager to see what it was all about. They literally cut a hole out of a portion of the lake, had a ramp going out to it, and people would jump into it. Some dressed up, others waited until the last possible second to take off their winter clothes and reveal a bathing suit, and some brave souls just calmly walked up, jumped in, and walked away like it was no big deal. But most ran back to their towels and clothes in a shocked state, having just been given the ultimate wake up call. Being the ever-intrepid photo-journalist that she is, Jackie’s desire to get closer to the action took a suddenly precarious turn, as a false step on the ice led to her left leg being suddenly much colder from the thigh down. Crisis was averted though as the rest of her body (and her camera!) were safely on much sturdier ground, and she was able to step herself out of the frozen waters. Snow pants and waterproof shoes aside, her one-legged plunge was enough for that day, and our polar plunges would have to wait another week.
But the polar plunge, as well as all of the games and competitions at the Winter Games, serves as one massive revolt against the dog days of winter. People flock to the small town of Okoboji, IA to defy the elements and triumph in the face of cold adversity. Because at the end of the day, it feels better being outside. And it especially feels better when you’ve been cooped up for months on end. So take a cue from the University of Okoboji; have some libations, get outside, run around a little bit, and enjoy yourselves.