Polar Bear Plunge Finds Fun, Funds

Thousands of hearty souls brave wintery waters for a worthy cause.

If attempting something adventurous and wacky is on your bucket list, then you should take the Polar Bear Plunge.This January, Law Enforcement for Special Olympics Minnesota presents the 17th annual White Bear Lake Polar Plunge. By facing frozen fears, polar plungers raise money to help raise awareness and support for Minnesota Special Olympians.

Susie Quarstad, founder of a plunge team called Susie Q and her Crazy Crew, has plunged for eight consecutive years. The first time was after she and a friend noticed an event flyer on a bar room wall. “We thought it was a neat way to support Special Olympics,” she says.“So we showed up, paid our money and jumped.”
A minimum donation of $75 is required to take the plunge, and 100 percent of the money raised stays in Minnesota for Special Olympics state, regional and area competitions. The success of the Polar Plunge has also allowed Special Olympics to develop an athlete leadership program, which provides Special Olympians with volunteer opportunities, speaking engagements and the chance to learn leadership skills. By learning best practices from Special Olympics, athletes can give back to their community, serve on boards and committees, coach teams and have jobs.

In addition, Polar Plunge money helps to support Special Olympics’ young athletes program for children 2 to 8 years old. These kids are too young to compete in the Special Olympics, but they can still meet once a week during this 10-week program to participate in various activities and get familiar with athletics.

A family friend of Quarstad is a Special Olympian who has advanced to become a global messenger for the organization. Knowing someone personally gives added purpose to Polar Plungeparticipants, but isn’t necessary to enjoy the festivities and overall circus atmosphere of the day. There are coffee, doughnut and other vendors on site. And a majority of plungers arrive dressed in crazy costumes for a pre-plunge costume contest.

New in 2013 was a category called Chicken Plungers. Event organizer Megan Powell says that anyone too “chicken” to jump into the lake can register as a chicken plunger. “Chicken plungers still fundraise,” says Powell.“They just don’t plunge. They get a T-shirt that says ‘Too Chicken to Plunge’ and a hat. They also get to compete in a chicken dance-off and watch their team plunge from an up-front location called the chicken coop.”

Powell is no chicken: She has taken the plunge three times. “It takes your breath away. Your instincts kick in and you scramble to get out of there,” she says. “But you’re smiling and laughing the entire time.”

Shawn O’Keefe, a 2013 co-captain of Susie Q’s team, enjoys every frosty bit of the event. “Last year was my fifth plunge and my first time wearing a costume—a tutu,” she says.“We feel like we’re a bunch of rock stars at a wild rock concert. The Polar Plunge has this party atmosphere, with the friendliest bunch of people all raising money for a good cause.”What’s it like to jump into a frozen lake? O’Keefe says, “It’s exhilarating, like riding in a race car going 180 miles per hour. A rush that happens that fast.”

Susie Q’s Crazy Crew has raised up to $18,000 a year for Special Olympics and would like to reach $20,000. They do so by asking for donations from family, friends and co-workers. Since its inception, the White Bear Lake Polar Bear Plunge has had more than 8,000 plungers, who’ve raised more than$1.5 million. Top money raisers are recognized on the event’s website.

In addition to competitive fundraising and costuming, Susie Q’s team books local hotel rooms, has breakfast together on plunge day and rents a bus to transport their team to the lake. Back at the hotel after their chillydive, team members spend the remainder of the day warming up poolside (indoors, of course), sharing a potluck and hanging out together.

Melanie Meyer,another 2013 co-captain, who grew up in White Bear Lake, describes the jump as cold! “You walk out of the warming tent together, get to the edge of the water and ask yourself, ‘What am I doing?’ Then you get this rush when you jump in and you’re ready to do it again right away,” she says.

The team members say that there is no special way to prepare for jumping into a frozen lake. But they do recommend drying off and changing clothes immediately afterward. Hot tubs are on-site for those who need an extra bump in body temperature. Quarstad also suggests wearing clothes to plunge instead of a swimsuit. “The wait for your turn to jump can be 10 to 15 minutes and it can get a bit chilly if you’re waiting around in your swimsuit,” she says.“But we still see a fair amount of Speedos out there.” She adds that it is required for all plungers to wear shoes to jump and that plungers should be sure to bring an extra pair of shoes, along with dry clothes to change into afterward.

Turns out a whole lot of people want to take the leap. Last year, Susie Q’s team closed to new members after reaching 40-plus participants. “The plunge itself is not that enjoyable to me,” says Quarstad. “But our plungers make a whole day of it, and it’s really neat to be connected to others who have the same goal of helping people and having fun.”


January 25
Plunges begin at noon
Ramsey Beach
5050 Lake Ave. N.
White Bear Lake

Interested in plunging or making a donation? Head to plungemn.org/location/whitebearlake for more information.