Taking the Plunge: Polar Plunge Combines the Best of Winter and Community

Lauren Fisher, photos by Randi Jo Market

The Polar Plunge, a fundraiser for Wisconsin’s Special Olympics Program, might involve a quick dip in a very cold lake, but it’s a heartwarming experience for many of the people involved. According to Mai Xiong, Special Olympics development director for the region, it’s one of the program’s biggest fundraising events of the year, with the Eau Claire Plunge bringing in more than $80,000 annually. Last year, statewide, the Plunge brought in $1.3 million. Of every dollar, 75 cents goes directly to supporting athletes with intellectual disabilities, and 100% of funds raised stay in the state of Wisconsin.

“We tell our partners that we really appreciate their financial support, but we appreciate their team member’s engagement a lot more,” Xiong said. The Polar Plunge has plenty of opportunities for community members to play a part, from pledging to plunge to fundraising to “toss your boss.” Some people vow to cast themselves into the icy water five times over the course of the event, while others don a chicken suit and strut around cheering on their more cold-tolerant comrades.  

The 2020 Polar Plunge, which takes place on Feb. 23, begins with a breakfast celebration that’s open to the community (location to be confirmed), before everyone hops on Paul’s Party Bus to Half Moon Lake for the main event.

“We’re gonna kick it up a bit this year,” Xiong said. It’s her plan to make sure there are more heaters than ever for post-plunge re-warming sessions. “My ancestors came from very tropical places, so I like to be warm; if I’m gonna be there, it’s gonna be warm.”

Whether Xiong herself takes to the water is a matter of challenge: She says she will only do it if City Manager Dale Peters takes a dunk.  

Athletes from the program participate in the event’s opening ceremonies, often before making a splash themselves. organized in part by local law enforcement officials.  A professional diver is on-site to keep an eye on plungers, as well as Eau Claire Fire and Rescue. “We thank all of our law enforcement officers because this event couldn’t happen without them,” Xiong said.

After the cold water has been braved, athletes, plungers, and chickens can all enjoy an afterparty inside together. All tips from breakfast and the afterparty will be given to the Special Olympics program.

“If the Polar Plunge is not on your bucket list it should be,” Xiong said.


For more information about the Eau Claire Polar Plunge, visit specialolympicswisconsin.org.