Polar Plunging for Special Olympics

Thousands of Special Olympics athletes and supporters will take the plunge into the icy cold Atlantic Ocean next month during Virginia Beach’s annual Polar Plunge Festival.  It’s an event that goes back 26 years, when a few dozen people decided to jump into the ocean to raise money for charity. That’s when Special Olympics Virginia received a phone call from Jim McDevitt, the founder of an organization called Adventure Club East, offering donations from their event. 

“Afterwards, Jim handed Roy [Zeideman, current senior vice president for Special Olympics Virginia] a shoebox with about $10,000 in it,” recalls Rick Jeffrey, the current Special Olympics Virginia president. 

Since that very first Polar Plunge, the event has grown. Last February, more than 3,500 people ran into the Atlantic Ocean, raising $1.1 million for Special Olympics Virginia in the process. This year’s Polar Plunge will take place Feb. 3rd at the Virginia Beach Oceanfront. 

Each year, more than 21,000 athletes participate in Special Olympics events across Virginia, along with more than 11,000 volunteers that include coaches, law enforcement and area leaders who help staff and run Special Olympics programs. With a state organization that helps oversee and coordinate with local chapters from Blacksburg to Arlington, the Polar Plunge provides a major fundraising opportunity to help the non-profit pay for many of its competitions and programs, enabling them to provide resources to athletes and their families all year long.

Special Olympics organizations in other states have their own versions of the Polar Plunge, many of which serve as major annual fundraising events for their programs. Jeffrey says some chapters are so good at their fundraising that they’re able to raise their entire annual budgets through the Plunge.

From 50 to 100 Plunge participants in 1992 to more than 3,500 plungers expected to gather on the cold Virginia Beach sand next month, the event has taken on a life of its own. 

It’s “gone from an event to a full-blown festival,” Jeffrey says.

 The Polar Plunge Festival now takes up three blocks of oceanfront space in Virginia Beach every February. A full day of activities is planned: Costume contests judged by local celebrities, local bands performing onstage, games and programs for families and a brand new feature this year — the Plunge Marketplace. 

At the Plunge Marketplace, local Virginia artisans and craftspeople will sell and sample their homemade products and goods for the festival attendees throughout the day on Saturday.

 Jeffrey says he not only feels pride for what the Polar Plunge Festival means for Special Olympics programs across Virginia, but also for how the festival contributes to the local community that serves as its host.  The festival has a long list of sponsors and support from just about every law enforcement and public service agency in the area. 

“We sell out six hotels on the oceanfront, with a $10 million economic impact in Virginia Beach over the course of that weekend,” Jeffrey says. “It simply wouldn’t be possible to have an event of this size, with this much involvement, without the help of so many volunteers and sponsors. We can’t do it on our own.”

Following the 4-mile and 1-mile runs in the morning, the main event is scheduled for 2 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 3rd, when participants make a dash into the ocean. It lasts anywhere from just a few minutes to until the last Plunger is out of the water. 

“Depending on how cold the water is, it might be pretty quick,” laughs Jeffrey.

Hundreds of Special Olympics athletes, their families and support networks will be the first to hit the water, including several athletes who are representing not only Virginia, but who are also competing to represent the United States in the 2019 Special Olympics World Summer Games held in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. 

The mission of the Special Olympics Virginia and the Polar Plunge Festival is simple, Jeffrey says: “Our athletes just want to be your classmate, your coworker, your neighbor, and most importantly, your friend. Everybody goes into the water side-by-side.”

Tips for Taking the Plunge in 2018

  • Form a team: You can raise more money as part of a team, and it’s easier to run into freezing cold water when you’re not alone. 
  • Wear a costume: Polar Plunge regulars go all out with their costumes, participating in a costume parade and contests.
  • Come ready to eat: Local and major food and beverage vendors will be on site throughout the day, so bring your wallet and your appetite.
  • Bring someone to hold your towel: This recommendation comes directly from Rick Jeffrey: “A dry, not sandy, towel is the best way to fi nish your plunge and warm you up quick.”

Want to find out more? Go to www.polarplunge.com

About the author

John-Michael Jalonen

John-Michael Jalonen is a writer, actor, filmmaker, and public speaking
coach. As a writer, his plays have been produced Off-Broadway and Off-Off
Broadway, as well as several award-winning short films based on his
scripts. He’s appeared on stage at Virginia Stage Company and Virginia
Shakespeare Festival, and on television in shows like “Legends and Lies”
and “Mysteries At The Museum”. John-Michael is also the founder of Clear
Theater Collective in Williamsburg, VA, and co-founder of HimHer
Productions, and regular produces and directs plays and short films with
these organizations. As a public speaking coach, John-Michael travels the
world conducting public speaking and storytelling seminars specifically
for patients with rare and chronic illnesses, empowering those groups to
use their voices and tell their stories.