Taking the Plunge to Support Special Olympics

By Katie Watkins

Thousands of Chicagoans jumped into Lake Michigan on Sunday morning for the 17th annual Polar Plunge, bearing the almost-freezing water to raise money for Special Olympics Chicago.

The Polar Plunge kicked off at North Avenue beach about 10 a.m. with a small ceremony. Bagpipers from the Shannon Rovers Irish Pipe Band marched into the water where they provided music for the first set of plungers, led by this year’s celebrity guest, actor Dax Shepard. Over the next several hours, thousands followed suit, many dressed in costumes for the occasion.

Among the costumed participants was Miguel Colon, 35, who channeled Day of the Dead for his costume, dressing up as Mexican revolutionary figure Emiliano Zapata “raised from the dead.”

“This year I wanted to represent more of my heritage,” Colon said.

His third Polar Plunge, Colon said the annual fundraising event is important to him.

“I have family friends who are disabled,” Colon said. “I do it for them because they enjoy the activities that the Special Olympics provides, and I want to come out here and show that I’m a part of that as well.”

Colon also said he was thankful for Sunday’s warm weather. “My first year there was about a six-foot ice cap,” he said.

The water temperature on Sunday was 39, while the air temperature hit 59, according to the National Weather Service.

Malory Dowdle, 23, said this was her first time doing the Polar Plunge in Chicago, although she’s done it several times in Michigan. Donning a leprechaun costume, Dowdle said her trick for dealing with the cold is to not think about it.

“I’ve done it a few times and it goes so fast,” said Dowdle, who recently moved to Chicago from Michigan. “Just being here with all the energy makes it a lot more fun.”

Having volunteered with the Special Olympics before, Dowdle said it’s an important organization for her to support.

“Ever since I was little, I worked with a summer camp that supports people with disabilities, and I have a lot of friends that participate in the Special Olympics,” she said. “Just to see how many people are here is awesome and super encouraging.”

To participate, plungers must raise at least $200. They then have the option to either go knee-high, waist-high or all the way under.

To help raise his $200, Stefan Rodriguez, 27, said he made a training video.

“It was a humorous montage: me running in cold weather, rubbing ice on my body, holding my breath in a cold bathtub, reading a book in the refrigerator,” Rodriguez said. “I was able to raise over $500 from the video, so it was a lot of fun to make.

“I’m from South Florida so this is going to be my first winter and my first Polar Plunge.”

Sunday’s plunge raised over $1.5 million, which will help finance programs that Special Olympics Chicago provides throughout the year for more than 6,800 athletes.

“I think it’s a wonderful cause. They’ve got terrific programs and it helps a lot of people,” said Carina Ballesteros, 38, of Burbank, Illinois, who did the Polar Plunge for the second year in a row.

Photo at top: Thousands jumped into Lake Michigan this year, raising over $1.5 million for Special Olympics Chicago. (Katie Watkins/MEDILL)