You’ve seen these people on the news or in your local paper. Maybe you’ve seen them in person at a local park or beach in winter. Maybe you’re even one of them. Who are they? And why are they jumping into a freezing body of water?
The origin of the polar bear plunge, as these events are often called, isn’t entirely clear. What is clear is that it happens worldwide. Russians and Scandinavians were doing it before it even had a name. A polar bear plunge is an event held during the winter where participants enter low temperature bodies of water for a variety of purposes. In the United States, polar bear plunges are generally used to raise money for charitable organizations such as the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
In the U.S., there are events across the country, particularly on New Year’s Day. In Boston, members of the L Street Brownies have been dipping on New Year’s Day since the early 1900s. And the Coney Island Polar Bear Club in New York has been around about as long. But members don’t just swim in the Atlantic Ocean on the first day of the year. They swim every Sunday from November through April.
The largest American plunge, sponsored by the Maryland State Police, is held annually at Sandy Point State Park in Maryland and raises funds for the Special Olympics. The event is commonly known by different names such as the “Maryland State Police Polar Bear Plunge”, “Plungefest”, or “Plungapalooza” after the 2007 event that raised over $2.2 million with over 7,400 participants. The event generally has over 10,000 participants each year and takes place in January, February or even March.
For those of us residing in the San Francisco Bay Area, there will be an event on February 18, 2017 at Little Marina Green in the Marina District where you have the option of participating in the plunge, the 5K run/walk, or both. You also have the option of making an online donation to the cause. More details of the events and a list of the other locations and times can be found on the Special Olympics Northern California website.
As for why tens of thousands of people participate in these events every year, some say that taking a dip in frigid water is very rejuvenating. Other participants say the plunge increases energy and decreases stress, while some others say its a fun way to help a charitable cause with your community.
Experts in the medical community do not completely support participation in this event. While healthy people will feel discomfort from the water for about 30 seconds, the shock of the cold water can pose a very serious risk for others, particularly those with heart disease or other health problems.
So if you’re considering taking the plunge, make sure you ask your doctor first in order to ensure your personal safety. If you are unable to participate, you can always attend the event to support the participants or donate online to help support the Special Olympics!