Freezin’ for a reason: Special Olympics’ Polar Plunge celebrates 20 years

by Doug Rapp

They’re freezin’ for a reason.

The 20th annual Chicago Polar Plunge to benefit Special Olympics Chicago is scheduled for Sunday, March 1, 2020, at North Avenue Beach. “Plungers” collect donations and pledge to jump into the icy waters of Lake Michigan.

“People are excited we’ve been doing this event this long,” said Heather Kundert, executive director of Special Olympics Chicago.

Kundert said they’re expecting 4,000 plungers, a combination of nearly 300 teams and individuals. Their goal, she said, is to raise $2,020,000 for the year 2020, all of which benefits the Chicago Special Olympics organization.

For the 20th anniversary, Kundert said they’re recognizing people who’ve participated since the beginning. Long-standing team Kidd Krue has raised over $42,000 and is the top non-corporate team. Some of the polar plunge founders attending this year include Gerry Henaghan, Pam Munizzi, Ernest Alvarado, Richard McAvoy and Michael Brady.

Kundert said they also want to recognize some other participating agencies, such as Envision and Misericordia, that support people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. 

“We’re excited to partner with some of our sister agencies in a different way this year,” she said.

New this year, Kundert said, will be an “Olympic village,” where sponsors and partner agencies will have different fun activities to encourage people to learn about other agencies helping out people with disabilities.

Kundert also praised the park district and the dive team on hand during the plunge. 

“We’re really proud that the city has really embraced this,” she said. “We wouldn’t be able to do a lot of what we do at the scale we do it without the park district’s help and their partnerships.”

John Fahey, of Team Dan Fahey is plunging for the fourth time this year. His brother Daniel is a Special Olympics athlete, he said, who plays basketball and baseball among other sports at Mt. Greenwood Park. John Fahey said his team raised $38,000 last year but this year they’re hoping to raise $40,000.

“We know it’s a good cause…we wanted to give back a little,” Fahey said.

Fahey recalled how last year was exceptionally cold and ice had to be cleared to make way for the plungers, but it’s an experience he still enjoys.

“It’s pretty awesome,” he said of running into the chilly lake. “It’s exhilarating, you get a pretty big rush. The adrenaline’s pumping. You’re yelling and screaming out there with a bunch of your friends.”

Kundert said many of the participants like Fahey have a personal connection to the Special Olympics but many plungers just want to help out. 

“Really they’re just all trying to get behind the city of Chicago and what we’re doing and what we do for these individuals,” Kundert said. “They really believe in supporting individuals with intellectual disabilities.”
To register as a team or individual or to donate, visit https://sochicago.org/chicago-polar-plunge/.

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