Polar plunge: Getting cold feet…literally

Brave souls in the area and around the country are gearing up for the chill of a lifetime as polar bear plunge season gets under way.

Polar bear plunges, sometimes known just as polar plunges, are part of a growing trend where adventurous individuals run, walk or dive into a frigid body of water, typically in January or February.

Often individuals are participating for a cause. The closest plunge, coming up Feb. 9 in Athens, is one of more than 100 events scheduled nationwide to raise money for the Special Olympics, said Meghan Weaver, marketing and development manager for Special Olympics Ohio.

The organization has been hosting annual plunges for the past 17 years and they get bigger every year, said Weaver.

“We are growing our events statewide, both the number of participants and the amount of revenue we brought in increased last year,” she said of the nine plunges that take place in Ohio.

This will be Athens’ sixth year hosting an event and 48-year-old Cathy Hart, a dispatcher for the Ohio University Police Department, has been involved in organizing the event all six years.

“I think the first year we had maybe 50 or 60 people. Last year we were right around 225. It has really caught on,” she said.

In fact, the Athens event has grown so much that last year they changed the venue from Strouds Run State Park to nearby Lake Snowden, which better accommodates the plungers and those who cheer them on, said Hart.

Though Hart sat out the actual plunge the first year, she has participated all five years since.

“Last year was by far the coldest, but it was the wind. With the wind chill it was 4 degrees,” she recalled.

The experience is a major adrenaline rush, said Hart.

“When you hit the water, it will literally take your breath away from you,” she recalled.

Dipping so much as a toe into an icy cold lake does not sound like fun for Strouds Run resident Jesse Stock, 38, although he has committed to taking part in the event this year.

“It sounds a little extreme,” he said.

Stock, who works at ATCO, an Athens-based work training center for adults with developmental disabilities, had heard of polar bear plunges before, but not of the ones associated with the Special Olympics.

“I typically would not brave the cold water, but I decided to do it to show support and to show that it takes a team effort,” he said.

That aspect of persevering in the face of a daunting task is exactly what makes the plunge the ideal event for a Special Olympics fundraiser, said Weaver.

“We want our participants to know what it’s like to feel a challenge, to do something our body really doesn’t want us to do because our athletes work daily to overcome challenges,” she explained.

Polar Bear plunges are nothing new and are not exclusive to the United States. In Canada, the plunges are a New Year’s Day tradition, and they’ve more recently become the same in many states, from Maryland to Florida to Washington.

According to the city of Vancouver’s website, The Vancouver Polar Bear Swim Club has been diving into the English Channel every New Year’s Day since 1920.

In Brooklyn, The Coney Island Polar Bear Club, founded in 1903, uses their New Year’s Day dip to raise money for Camp Sunshine, a program that offers support to children with life-threatening illnesses and their immediate families.

However, the organization that boasts the title of “the oldest winter bathing organization in the United States” on its website also participates in non-charity swims every Sunday from November through April.

Once a year is enough for Hart.

“There aren’t too many things that would get me into jumping into a lake in February, but supporting Special Olympics is definitely one of them,” she said.

Those interested in participating in an upcoming Special Olympics plunge can find out more at www.sooh.org.