Polar Plunge goes virtual amid COVID-19

This year’s Polar Plunge was forced to take place virtually, with Sunday marking the final day of the weeklong event.

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A student jumps into a wading pool filled with snow and water for St. Patrick High School’s version of the Polar Plunge.

People usually jump into Lake Michigan for the annual Polar Plunge, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, groups are doing it separately and finding creative ways to join.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Every year for the last two decades, thousands of people ascend to North Avenue to dive into the frigid waters of Lake Michigan to raise money for Special Olympics Chicago and Special Children’s Charities.

In 2020, nearly 5,000 people charged into the lake, raising a record-setting $2.2 million during what turned out to be one of the last major events in the city to take place before the pandemic uprooted life as we knew it.

But that wasn’t the case this year. Like so many other traditions, this year’s Polar Plunge was forced to take place virtually, with Sunday marking the final day of the weeklong event.

Like so many other traditions, this year’s Polar Plunge was forced to take place virtually, with Sunday marking the final day of the weeklong event.

Many participants got creative with the reimagined Polar Plunge.

Some still made the trip to the lakefront to take a dip in Lake Michigan, while another group constructed a homemade dunk tank that they set up in an alleyway. On Saturday, students and teachers at St. Patrick High School hosted a fun-filled event outside on the school’s football field and raised about $10,700.

Meanwhile, Taylor’s Green Team, which has been participating for the last 21 years, met up at a lake outside of town Saturday to jump into the painfully cold water.

Beth Dudzinski, a member of Taylor’s Green Team, said this year was especially special for her family. Last October, their brother, Kevin Stapleton, who participated in the first Special Olympics games at Soldier Field in 1968, died due to complications with the coronavirus.

Special Olympics “meant the world to Kevin. 1968 and 2020 was so different in terms of just how people with disabilities were viewed. So it opened so many things up for him, and it gave him friends. It gave him a sense of community… He was more busy than the rest of his family,” Stapleton said.

Stapleton’s friend, Mary Anne Fallon, who’s also a member of Taylor’s Green Team, has also seen first-hand how Special Olympics changes the lives of its athletes. Fallon’s 25-year-old son, Connor, has autism and participates in nearly every sport offered through Norwood Park, including swimming, weight lifting and gymnastics.

Fallon said the beginning of lockdown was hard for Connor because he missed playing sports and being with his friends. But after a few weeks off, Special Olympic Chicago found a way to maintain its community amid the pandemic as the organization hosted various programs for its athletes through Zoom.

“With COVID, they can’t have the same type of competition,” Fallon said. “But they’re so creative and they’re still bringing the camaraderie [and] the friendships. It’s still there, it’s just different.”

Next year, Stapleton and Fallon hope the event will return to North Avenue Beach.

“It’s just great fun,” Stapleton said. “It’s a huge party atmosphere, honestly... And I just think it’s super, super important for people to donate to Special Olympics Chicago. And I would hope that people realize all it does for so many people and how important the Special Olympics Chicago is to so many people.”

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