Running through wet sand, hail slapping their skin, screams and yips erupted from the droves of dedicated community members as they plunged into Puget Sound this past Saturday.
Delayed by two weeks due to the so-called “Snowpocalypse” in Seattle, Special Olympics Washington hosted their annual polar plunge Feb. 23 at Alki Beach, raising $180,000 for Special Olympics in Washington State.
Special Olympics Washington (SOWA) supports 18,000 athletes with learning disabilities within the state and is backed by an expansive support network of more than 10,000 volunteers.
Initially hoping to raise $160,000 and break the world record for largest polar plunge at this event, SOWA changed tactics when it became clear there were not enough pre-registrants for this to happen. Abandoning the restrictions to break the world record, the event organizers decided to promote a more playful event by allowing participants to wear costumes.
The world’s largest polar bear plunge record was set by the Xiith Ice Swimmers Convention on Feb. 15 with 1,799 participants in Mielno, Poland. In order to break this record, participants must all be waist deep in water for at least 60 seconds wearing swimsuits — no costumes allowed.
According to Jaymelina Esmele, director of marketing and communications for Special Olympics Washington, 900 participants came out last weekend, over twice the number of participants at the 2018 plunge at Golden Gardens Park.
The polar plunge moves all around the state of Washington, but this was the first year since 2011 the event took place at Alki Beach. Esmele called the return to West Seattle a homecoming, giving the organization a chance to partner with the community and expand local awareness.
Though lead by SOWA, Law Enforcement Torch Run and King 5 News were prominent sponsors of the event. Mobile Food Rodeo supplied local food vendors to allow a simultaneous food truck festival, and with a beer garden in the Alki bathhouse, the event allowed passersby an opportunity to contribute to the fundraiser, as all proceeds from the day went to Special Olympics Washington.
With local DJs headlining the main stage and appearances from the local rugby team, the Seattle Seawolves, the event was a lively time.
“I think it’s a fun event, and there’s a lot of heart,” said Esmele. “Even if you don’t plunge, it’ll be a party on land.”
Between the organizing, staffing and coaching, volunteers help the small SOWA team succeed. Esmele maintains that without the engagement of volunteers from the community, SOWA would not be what it is today.
“We could not do what we do without all of our volunteers,” she said.