If you see a large group of people running into the Willamette River early Saturday morning, don’t be too alarmed. It’s just the annual Polar Plunge to benefit the Special Olympics.
The Polar Plunge, as it is so accurately named, consists of participants running into the sub-40-degree water of the Willamette River in order to raise money for Special Olympic athletes across the state. The Special Olympics provides intellectually disabled youth and adults the opportunity to participate in sports. The Polar Plunge marks the organization’s biggest fundraising event of the year.
Event coordinator Emily Ressegger says this event is held because many athletes lack the funds to participate in sports. “This is a way we can provide them with basketball or baseball equipment and pay for some of the fees that come along with certain sports.”
This year’s Polar Plunge will mark the event’s eighth consecutive year that hundreds of Eugene-area residents will dive into the near-freezing cold River in support of Oregon’s Special Olympics. In honor of making the plunge, participants will each raise at least $50 for the cause.
The plunge will take place at Maurie Jacobs Park located in the Whiteaker district, just north of the Greenway pedestrian bridge. A section of the river will be roped off and patrolled by Lane County divers just in case of an emergency. There have never been any issues in the past; the divers are there as precautionary measures taken by the city to ensure safety.
Eugene is one of five Oregon locations hosting a plunge fundraiser this year — Portland, Corvallis, Bend and Medford all have Polar Plunges scheduled later this month.
“When it was first created, it was kind of an insane idea,” Ressegger said. “It’s really easy to get people to run into the river in the middle of the summer, but it’s not all that exciting. This way it’s really exciting. It’s a bucket list event for some people; it’s an annual tradition for others.”
While half of the proceeds from this weekend’s events will stay in Lane County, 100 percent of the money raised will go directly to Special Olympic programs within the state. The event is expected to raise more than half a million dollars that will benefit disabled athletes across Oregon.
According to Ressegger, this year’s plunge is set to beat last year’s number of participants with over 400 people already signed up. While about three-quarters of the participants usually go into the water, the rest watch from the shore and support those brave enough to endure the expected 38-degree waters.
Once the plunge begins, participants can either swim out into to the roped off area of the river or just dip their feet in the water. Due to safety concerns, plungers are sent into the river in groups or teams. Since it’s a law-enforcement-sponsored event, their teams will be the first to make the plunge.
The Eugene Police Department will form a team with officers and personnel from the University of Oregon Police Department, Springfield Police Department and Lane County Sheriff’s Office. Several local schools, including Thurston Middle School and South Eugene High School have teams participating. Even Eugene’s minor league baseball team, the Emeralds, and the team mascot, Sluggo, will be competing too.
People making the plunge will often sport funny costumes and apparel, while others will only wear a Speedo.
“Superheroes, pirates, Minions, Where’s Waldo … There’s always all kinds of fun costumes,” Ressegger said. “Costumes aren’t required, but they are highly encouraged and can make the event more fun.”
There will be a prize for best individual costume as well as a prize for best team costume.
After participants have made their Polar Plunge and returned to the park, there are private changing tents for swimmers to switch out of their wet clothes. Once they’ve changed into warm clothing, the triumphant plungers are welcome to stick around to watch others make the dive or just head home.
For people who are brave enough to make the plunge this weekend, there is sign up information at www.PlungeOregon.com. For those who want to get more involved with the Special Olympics, more information is available at www.soor.org.