Annual ‘Polar Plunge’ raises money for Special Olympics Wisconsin

Eau Claire community members jump in freezing water after fundraising for charity

More stories from Madeline Peterson


Photo by Gabbie Henn

Teams of fundraisers took the plunge into icy water last Sunday at Half Moon Beach after raising thousands of dollars to benefit Special Olympics athletes.

Last Sunday at Half Moon Beach, Eau Claire community members jumped into freezing water for a good cause. The event is called the Polar Plunge, and it is held every year to raise money for Special Olympics Wisconsin.

In the winter season, Polar Plunge events are held throughout the state of Wisconsin. Eau Claire belongs to Region Three, and it has been hosting a Polar Plunge event for decades. Region Three Polar Plunge Coordinator Lisa Walter has been volunteering for Special Olympics Wisconsin for over thirty years.

“(The Polar Plunge) is the largest fundraiser for Special Olympics in Wisconsin,” Walter said, “We have 350 to 400 plungers today.”

The Polar Plunge event works with volunteers from a variety of organizations such as Best Buy, UW-Eau Claire and local law enforcement, including the Altoona Police Department and Eau Claire Sheriff Department (ECSD).

Eau Claire Sheriff Department Patrol Deputy Melissa Maxwell says the ECSD has a history of partnering with the Polar Plunge.

“It’s been the law enforcement charity of choice for over thirty years,” Maxwell said.

For Maxwell, the best part of the event is being able to interact with the Special Olympics athletes, she said.

“The athletes are always the most important part … they’re wonderful people who appreciate anything you do,” Maxwell said.

The snowstorm last Saturday night didn’t deter either participants or the public from attending the event. Several local companies, including WestConsin Credit Union and Festival Foods were in attendance, ready to jump into the freezing water after raising thousands of dollars for the organization.

According to the Polar Plunge website, the event was able to raise $115,000 for the Special Olympics during last year’s Plunge. The jumpers were organized into teams as they fundraised leading up to the event and then took the plunge together.

Teams were often in costume and had names representing their organization or group. First-time participant Hannah Larson was the captain of team “Thaw and Order.” Although it was the first time “Thaw and Order” had participated in the event, they were able to raise $3,300 for Special Olympics Wisconsin.

“We reached out to friends and family, posted on Facebook and wore our team shirts to work in order to fundraise,” said Larson, whose favorite part of the event was the jump itself and the team bonding involved.

Fellow teammate Cindy Waller said she has a son who is a Special Olympics athlete. Walter was inspired to participate after watching his involvement in the Polar Plunge.

“My son had jumped five times, and so I thought ‘Mom has to do it once,’” Walter said.

Despite the freezing water, Larson insists “Thaw and Order” will return in upcoming years.

“It was very exhilarating and nerve-wracking, but it was very fun,” Larson said.

In addition to the plunge itself, the event also sold food and Special Olympics Wisconsin merchandise to community members and participants. Maxwell said getting the community involved is one of the most important features of the event.

“It’s really nice to get the public involved so they’re able to see what their donations are going toward,” Maxwell said.