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Children watching a turtle.

More than 35 Minnesota turtles will be competing in the Turtle Derby at Diehl plaza on June 22 at 10 a.m. The four-hour annual event raised about $35,000 for the University of Minnesota Children's Hospital last year.

The turtles are coming...

Annual Turtle Derby raises money for University of Minnesota Children's Hospital

By Pauline Oo

June 20, 2006

Who will win the coveted title "Grandest Turtle of Them All" this year? Will it be Slow News Day, Diehl or no Diehl, or Cerrasota? Or will it be one of the other 30 hard-shelled amphibians competing in the 2006 Annual Turtle Derby?

Since 1987, the Turtle Derby has drawn hundreds of people to the balloon-festooned Diehl Hall courtyard on the Twin Cities campus and raised more than $20,000 a year for the University of Minnesota Children's Hospital, Fairview. (The one-day, four-hour event raised about $35,000 in both 2004 and 2005.) This year's Turtle Derby will be held on Thursday, June 22, (rain date June 23) from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

In addition to seeing live turtles race around a track, visitors can mingle with the clowns, the turtle mascot, Goldy Gopher, and Ronald McDonald, and stop at booths to buy turtle sundaes, bratwursts, and souvenirs like T-shirts, hats, and buttons. Participants in the Turtle Derby children's drawing contest will also be on hand to parade their winning entries. First-place winner Eric Turner's turtle, made up of ink-drawn swirls, appears on almost all the souvenirs.

No harm comes to the turtles at the Turtle Derby, says event committee chair Kris Sobczyk. "The turtles are actually treated better than people [in an average race]," she says. "They are kept in a pool and in the shade, given fresh water and fed. We also have a vet [on location] and on-call."

Turtle Derby tip

For a bird's eye view of the derby by Diehl Hall, get on the skyway that joins the Philips-Wangensteen Building to the Mayo Memorial Building or the skyway that connects the University of Minnesota Medical Center with Mayo. "You'll get the shot of your life," says Kris Sobczyk, Turtle Derby committee chair.

University departments and individuals pay between $30 and $50 to sponsor a turtle in the derby--one of many public fundraising or health awareness events held on the Twin Cities campus each year (see "Further reading" below.) The turtles, which compete in four heats for a spot in the semifinal and final rounds, come from a turtle rescue and rehabilitation center in Perham, Minn. Following their 15 minutes of fame at the U's turtle derby, the turtles are returned the wild. According to the Minnesota Herpetological Society, turtles are frequently hit by cars while crossing roads. Blanding's, snapping, and painted turtles are common species in Minnesota.

The Turtle Derby was conceived by a group of people from the U's Academic Health Center (AHC) and University Hospitals and Clinics--before it became the University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview, says Jenny Meslow, AHC community relations project coordinator and former chairperson of the derby committee.

Name that terrapin

Each year, the battle of the turtles happens long before derby day. In weeks leading up to the race, sponsors try to outwit each other in the naming their turtles. Among the more creative names in past years: Jesse the Venturtle, Muddona, Turtle Biscuit, and Medzilla.

Each year, various units within the children's hospital submit funding proposals to the Turtle Derby committee. All proceeds from this year's event, including souvenirs and food sales, will be used to buy pediatric teaching tools, such as books and dolls, for children who receive organ transplants and who are patients in the emergency department; educational materials and age-appropriate toys and games for patients in the pediatric mental health units; and child-friendly furnishings for treatment rooms at the Pediatric Imaging and Sedation unit.

"We look at the proposals with a pediatric focus--how many kids are we going to be able to help and how many kids is this going to affect," says Sobczyk. "For example, last year, we got laptop computers for the children who undergo four hours of dialysis treatment."

Thus far, the Turtle Derby committee has received more than 200 sponsorships, and it is once again expecting a crowd to gather at Diehl plaza.

Turtles at the Bell

The Bell Museum of Natural History has a Blanding's turtle, a painted turtle, and three Asian box turtles in its Touch-and-See Room. The public can touch them with the help of a guide and see the turtles swimming or walking around or being fed once a week. Museum hours are Tuesday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. Admission is $5 (free on Sundays).

"The Turtle Derby is just so much fun," says Sobczyk. "People should just come and experience it. Yes, we're trying to raise money, but a lot of people come just for the sheer joy of the fun. For me, the part that is so special is seeing our pediatric oncology patients out there in their wheelchairs--these bald children wearing a turtle derby T-shirt--with the biggest smiles on their faces."

And if marriage is on your mind this summer, consider making that proposal to your special someone at the Turtle Derby.

"We've had one marriage proposal in the history of the event," says Sobczyk. "The happy couple had their first date at Turtle Derby, and they are now celebrating their second anniversary."

To sponsor a turtle or pledge a donation, e-mail Kris Sobczyk or call 612-273-6930.

Further reading More than a walk around the track Pets remembered at U's Memories Garden Bruininks signs organ donor card u open arms (and doors) for victims of hurricane

A gift springs from this water