OKOBOJI, Iowa | Snow and ice have returned for this year's Okoboji Winter Games.

Last year, unseasonably warm temperatures forced organizers to cancel some events and move others off West Lake Okoboji's Smith Bay because ice was too thin.

Another round of balmy weather in December raised the possibility of the games largely shifting to land for two straight years for the first time in the 36-history of the popular event.

But as temperatures turned frigid, West Lake froze over for good on Jan. 4, and the ice has stayed thick enough to support the hundreds, if not thousands, of fun-seekers.

The allure of wintry weather has local officials anticipating record crowds for this year's edition of the Games, which start a four-day run Thursday night.

"We have 100 indoor and outdoor events," said Jen Johnson-Ross, program director for the Iowa Great Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce. "It just continues to grow each and every year."

Mega Snow Pong and Swim Suits and Snowboots will be two new events joining the classic Winter Games offerings that include the Polar Plunge, Broomball, Flag Football and Snow Volleyball.

Highs in the mid-30s are expected for the region this weekend, with no precipitation in the forecast until Sunday night.

While spectators are welcome to watch the activities, it's not advised for vehicles to drive onto the ice. Johnson-Ross also noted there are pockets of open water, particularly beneath bridges.

"We want to stress to people that these are in fact games," she said. "They should exercise caution and common sense. Safety should be at the forefront of everybody's mind."

As in past years, eight Dickinson County prominent citizens have been elected official "cheerleaders" for the winter games.

While no one is keeping official records, Norm Meinking readily admits he is the oldest cheerleader.

And, he says, "At 84 I won’t be doing any high kicking or back flips, either.”

But Meinking will be be singing “O-K-O-B-O-J-I,” and a newly composed UofO cheer with the other cheerleaders at events starting Friday night with the chili cook-off at the Dickinson County Expo Building in Spirit Lake.

Another cheerleader, Jason Harrington, did not offer a clue of what the Games' new cheer will involve, other than to say his wife was a cheerleader at the University of Northern Iowa.

“So I have some great insight, and we’ve come up with a variety of cheers,” he said.

This year's Winter Games also feature the first mother/daughter duo to serve as cheerleaders the same year -- Diane Albers and her daughter, Darcy Albers-Sundall. Rounding out the cheer squad are Barry Sackett, Cindy Mart and Dr. Eric and Sally Nielsen.

The cheerleaders will try to attend as many of the 100 events as possible, up from 70 a year ago.

"Clearly we can’t be at all 100 events," Harrington said. "And there are probably some where people don’t want us there anyway. If you’re playing bridge or cribbage you certainly don’t want us butting in and yelling and interrupting your concentration.”

The three largest boat dealers in the region have gone all-out this year to attract participants -- possible boat buyers -- to the Games.

The Parks Marina locations will have dozens of live entertainment events, as will Mau Marine and its Okoboji Store. And Oak Hill Marina will host several live events in the Green Space at Preservation Plaza -- within sight of were the Polar Plunge will take place at the State Pier at 3 p.m. Saturday.

Also in the Green Space, for the first time in 12 years, weather permitting, there will be a static hot air balloon display, just before the Burning of the Greens on Saturday night.

The Stephens College, Okoboji Summer Theatre will host its annual omelet brunch on Saturday morning in the Majestic Pavillion, and announce its summer schedule of shows at the Okoboji Summer Theatre Association's annual meeting at 2 p.m. in the adjacent Hedberg Theatre.

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