EAST TAWAS – The 2019 Water Warriors Mackinaw Ride was dedicated to the memory of Denise “Ester” Radgowski, Tawas City. And the successful fundraising efforts during the 29th annual event was a fitting way to honor her legacy.
Radgowski, who passed away June 1, would have marked her 24th year with the Water Warriors this summer. Each year, participants travel 450 miles aboard jet skis to raise money for Special Olympics Michigan (SOMI).
The route begins in Mackinaw City, with riders making their way along the entire eastern shore of Lake Huron and down the length of the St. Clair River, concluding their journey at Harsens Island.
The five-day endurance ride kicked off this year on July 29, with scheduled stops along the way for participants to eat, sleep, gas up their machines, host additional fundraising events and spend time with some of the Special Olympics Athletes.
The Water Warriors stayed overnight in Tawas City again this year, and the absence of Radgowski was clearly felt by participants.
“The Water Warriors are men and women from all walks of life who have two things in common – their love of water sports and their desire to help people. Ester exemplified both of these. She was passionate about the Water Warriors, her fundraising efforts, and raising awareness of the Special Olympic Athletes in Michigan,” stated Brad Saegesser, Tawas City, who has rode with the group since 2005.
He said that for many of Radgowski’s years as a Water Warrior, she rode on a jet ski and often took part in the entire voyage. When she gave up riding, she continued to help as a spotter on support boats during the event, as well as on land support.
“There are only three members of Water Warriors that have been involved for longer than Ester. No matter how many times Thunder Bay kicked her butt, she got back on her jet ski the next day. As she said, the challenges the Water Warriors face during the Ride are nothing compared to what the Special Olympic Athletes face every single day,” Saegesser shared.
“Over the years, she recruited many new members of the Water Warriors, including me,” he continued. “For my rookie ride 15 years ago, Ester let me use her jet ski, while she was a spotter on the Support Boat keeping me safe and providing words of support and encouragement.”
While he doesn’t have an exact number, Saegesser notes that Radgowski typically raised more than $2,000 a year as a Water Warrior. This included obtaining donations from local businesses and individuals, as well as other fundraisers, such as working the concession stand at the Women’s Softball Tournament in East Tawas.
Saegesser added that a Water Warriors member made decals in honor of Radgowski, which each of the jet skiers displayed on their machines this year.
For the 2019 run, Saegesser said that, as of the start of the ride, there were 17 jet skiers, three support boats with two crew and two spotters on each boat, 17 people providing land support and two active SOMI members conducting fundraising. Also, there were 18 Water Warriors who were not able to take part in the ride this year, but who have been actively raising money for the event.
It was on day two of their voyage, July 30, when they made their annual stop in the Tawas area.
While looking out into Tawas Bay, the horizon was suddenly scattered with dots of activity in the early afternoon. As anyone who has watched them arrive knows, it wouldn’t be long before these obscure shapes came closer and closer to shore, revealing themselves as the Water Warriors.
From U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) Station Tawas in East Tawas, a USCG boat and crew led the way for the jet skiers, escorting them to the East Tawas State Dock where their machines were fueled up by Department of Natural Resources (DNR) staff.
The Warriors then cruised over to the nearby DNR Boat Launch, where approximately 20 local, Area 31 Special Olympics Athletes were anxiously awaiting their arrival.
An event tradition has been for the Water Warriors to give jet ski rides to the athletes when they make their stops along the route, and this is something that those on each side always look forward to.
For example, Saegesser said that meeting and talking with the athletes is his favorite highlight of the event.
“The primary goals of the Water Warriors are to raise awareness and funds for the Special Olympics Athletes in Michigan. At every one of our stops, we have Athletes cheering us on when we arrive in the harbor,” he stated. “Many of them look forward to seeing the Water Warriors every year and it’s like a family reunion. There are Athletes at every stop that have been involved with the Water Warriors for many years and they remember specific riders and are excited to see them again.”
Saegesser also noted that there were 10 athletes, including two coaches, who joined those on the support boats from Harrisville to East Tawas.
Following the jet ski rides, the Water Warriors hosted an all-you-can-eat spaghetti dinner at the Tawas Fraternal Order of Eagles in East Tawas, with the proceeds raised benefitting SOMI.
The riders rested up that evening, then headed out the next morning to continue their crusade, with Standish being their first scheduled stop on July 31.
They proceeded with their fundraising efforts for the remainder of the ride, but they were already well on their way to meeting their goal by day two of the event. Traditionally, the group seeks to raise about $150,000 each year.
According to Saegesser, as of Tuesday morning they had already brought in more than $90,000 – which doesn’t include the money from that evening’s spaghetti dinner, or any of the other fundraisers scheduled for the rest of the ride. Also, the Water Warriors technically have until Sept. 30 to finish their fundraising for the 2019 event.
For instance, Saegesser said the Women’s Softball Tournament – set this year for Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 7-8 – is a big fundraiser for Jan Johnson, who resides in the Tawas area and completed her fourth ride with the Water Warriors this year.
“Proceeds from the tournament and the concession stand go to the Water Warriors,” Saegesser explained. “We will also be hosting an Exhibition Game again at the tournament this year between our Area 31 Softball Team and a group of All Stars from each of the women’s teams in the tournament.”
While participants work diligently to raise money each year, they also get a boost from other Water Warriors supporters during their trip.
Saegesser shared that many of the meals for riders along the route are donated by local businesses and families, and some of the harbors provide discounts on fuel.
“We have been staying at many of the same hotels at each overnight stop for many years and they always give us good discounts,” he added.
The crew at Tawas Bay Pronto Pups in East Tawas have also lent a hand, donating lunch for the last two years to all of the Area 31 Athletes and coaches, as well as the Water Warriors, upon their arrival in Tawas Bay.
The jet skiers were also greeted with sunshine and calm waters during their jaunt from Harrisville to Tawas – which was not the case when they started their trip last Monday.
Saegesser said the general consensus of participants is that July 29 presented the worst weather yet for the Water Warriors. They were caught in three different storms, which brought huge waves and blinding rain.
“Thunder Bay was still rolling pretty good on Tuesday morning after the storms on Monday,” Saegesser notes, adding that conditions were much better as the day went on.
Aside from Mother Nature’s unpredictable behavior, the Water Warriors persisted in their goal.
In addition to Saegesser and Johnson, other local participants in this year’s event included Jodie Spencer, Saegesser’s wife, who has volunteered for both land support duties and as a spotter on the support boats for the last 15 years.
“Ester Radgowski got Jodie and me involved with the Water Warriors 20 years ago in 1999 when we moved to Tawas City,” Saegesser said.
“Jodie was born and raised here and graduated from Tawas High School. We started our involvement with the Water Warriors by donating to Ester’s ride and helping her with local fundraising,” he continued.
“We also had a new rider from Tawas this year that rode with us from Harrisville to Tawas – Ron Quinkert from Tawas Bay Marine & Cycle,” Saegesser states.
“For years, this business has been donating a double trailer to Team Tawas to get our machines to Mackinaw City for the start of the ride. This year, they put one of their machines in the water and sponsored Ron, their Sales Manager, to ride with the Water Warriors on Tuesday,” he described.
As Saegesser has previously reported, a majority of the money raised for SOMI through the Mackinaw Ride is used to support the Poly Hockey and Unified Bowling Finals. Of the funds raised in Iosco County, 25 percent comes back directly to the Area 31 Special Olympics Athletes.
The Water Warriors – which have raised more than $2.8 million since the ride’s inception in 1991 – are civic partners with SOMI, which commits them to a $55,000 obligation with the organization. Funds generated beyond the minimum contribution are dispersed in the form of grants for various Special Olympics areas across the state.
SOMI is a nonprofit organization supported almost entirely by corporate and individual gifts and events. Saegesser added that it provides year-round sports training and athletic competition for nearly 30,000 children and adults with intellectual disabilities.
For those who were unable to take part in the ride or fundraising events, donations can still be made to the Water Warriors through Saegesser’s online fundraising page at https://www.firstgiving.com/fundraiser/bradsaegesser/Water-Warriors-Mackinaw-Ride.
As Saegesser notes, it can be hard to recruit new members, and the group is always looking for additional riders. To learn more about the Water Warriors, or to join the team, visit www.waterwarriors.us.