Taking the Plunge for Special Olympics

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It takes a certain kind of moxie to ask people to jump in the lake during a Chicago winter. But it turns out, at least when the cause is the Special Olympics, Chicagoans are more than happy to test their mettle by dunking themselves in a frozen Lake Michigan. And they do it with a smile on their faces.

Well, at least before they enter the water.

Last year’s Chicago Polar Plunge, which is organized by Special Olympics Chicago, attracted 3,200 participants to North Avenue Beach and raised more than $1 million.

“Last year was the coldest on record,” said Susan Nicholl, executive director of Special Olympics Chicago. “It was also our most successful event so far, so go figure.”

Nicholl, who longtime Chicago runners will remember as the founder of the Chicago Half Marathon as well as race director at several other events over the years, has worked for Special Olympics Chicago for the last 10 years. She's helped grow the Polar Plunge, which has become the organization’s biggest fundraiser.

It received national attention last year when The Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon took the challenge from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and came to Chicago to participate. We sat down with Nicholl to find out more about the event (which takes place this year on March 1), Jimmy Fallon, and why people are so happy to jump in a lake.

Jimmy Fallon helped gain national attention for the event last year.
Jimmy Fallon helped gain national attention for the event last year. Special Olympics Chicago

How did you convince Jimmy Fallon to participate last year?

It was our good fortune. It wasn’t any kind of tactic or strategy on our part. In short, the mayor heard Jimmy Fallon mention in an interview that he loved Chicago, but was afraid of the mayor. And so Rahm tweeted, Jimmy, toughen up and join me in the Polar Plunge. And so it got into this Twitterverse back-and-forth of, do you think I should? They went at it all the week, and Jimmy committed just a few days before the event. (You can watch them both talk about it on his show here.)

And what did it mean for you to have him there?

It’s really helped us this year, because so many people know about the event. Everybody, regular people on the street, know about it now because it’s the event that Jimmy Fallon did. He mentioned it, I think, four different times on the show and guests afterward brought it up. So from a marketing standpoint, it was just wonderful luck for us.

And he had a great time. He wore a suit. He didn’t break character. He was a very approachable, nice, fun guy, and he really hammed it up and was wonderful to have around.

So other than having the mayor issue a challenge, how do you convince people to jump in the lake?

It’s really not that hard. I think people like the idea of doing something out of the ordinary for a good cause. It’s a terrific event that everyone is welcome to do, no matter if they go knee high, waist high, or take the full plunge. And they might say that they’re not going all the way under, and then they do.

It’s a completely safe event. In 14 years of doing it, only one person was injured, and they just had a small cut on their foot from a piece of ice. We’ve got divers out there who make a half circle that you can’t go past. And that’s through the support of the park district and fire department.

Other cities may have polar-bear type events, but they all seem to emphasize the tough-guy aspect of it. You and the participants seem to emphasize having fun, with costumes and a much more social component to it.

I think that’s right. It is not so much a dare fest, although we do say you get bragging rights for life. Our demographic is younger, and a lot of them do it as a group and have fun with it. It becomes a very social thing to do.

Costumes are popular among groups at the Polar Plunge.
Costumes are popular among groups at the Polar Plunge. Special Olympics Chicago

Tell me a little bit about what Special Olympics does, and how the money is used.

The very first Special Olympics took place in Chicago. The movement was born here in 1968, when 1,000 athletes participated in those games, and now there are more than 4 million athletes in 170 countries. We say that the movement was born in Chicago. And here we are, 47 years later, and we still have that great support from the Mayor’s Office and the Chicago Park District so that our Chicago program can continue to grow.

At Special Olympics Chicago, we have 22 sports and hold 40 events throughout the year. There are 5,000 athletes here in Chicago, and that number is growing. This is our black-tie event, only we don't have to lay out for expenses like hotel rentals and linens and entertainment. It’s a very streamlined event, and it sustains what we do throughout the year.

Were there any issues with the cold weather last year?

It was trying last year. The lake was frozen. We had to break up the ice with two front-end loaders just so we could get in the lake. It was 10 degrees (the day of the plunge). But everyone came out and it was a very successful event.

Braving the Polar Plunge.
Braving the Polar Plunge. Scott L

What are your goals for this year?

We have room for 4,000 people, so we’d like to get close to that. And we’d like to raise more than $1 million again this year.

How’s the event organized, in terms of how you get all those people in the lake?

Everyone is assigned a wave. So you show up about half an hour before your wave and go in at your assigned time. We basically build a tent city at North Avenue Beach, and the beach house itself is wrapped and heated. We turn that into a beach club atmosphere. So after (you get out of the lake), you come in and warm up. Everyone gets a long-sleeve T-shirt, a towel, free post-event photo downloads, and free post-event food.

It probably helps that people are ready to go outside to do anything after a long Chicago winter?

Yes, it’s a great event for people who have cabin fever. You get to go out and be social and do something nutty and fun.

To register for this year's event, you can sign up at this website.

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