This story was originally written for Alaska Public Media.
Would you jump into an ice-cold lake for a good cause? Last Saturday, over 1,000 people plunged into Goose Lake in Anchorage for Special Olympics Alaska. The event raised around $300,000 to support the team that will be going to the USA Games in Seattle next July.
Hundreds of people gathered around Goose Lake to watch participants plunge into the freezing waters. Some plungers cried, some belly-flopped and some couldn’t wait to get it over with.
Plungers jumped in teams of four into the pool of water. Firefighters went out the day before to cut a square of ice out of the lake.
I caught one participant as he raced to the warming area after the jump. He was in such a hurry, he didn’t have time to tell me his name.
“It was really exciting and invigorating. It was fun to come out here and help raise some money, have a good time,” he said.
The plunge is the biggest fundraiser of the year for Special Olympics Alaska. It’s raised $2.5 million since the first event in 2009.
Jim Balamaci is the President and CEO of the organization. He first became involved with Special Olympics in 1979 when he saw an ad in the paper to volunteer for the Olympics in Kodiak. He’s been with Special Olympics ever since.
Balamaci thinks that people with intellectual disabilities can learn confidence and skills through sports.
“The beauty of it is that sometimes jumping into cold water, and maybe that second of loneliness and that second of feeling sorry for yourself and maybe not feeling apart of things, for that one second that’s sometimes what our athletes feel, day in and day out. When we break down those barriers, from both our athletes and our participants, that’s what I look forward to the most,” Balamaci said.
Athletes help in other ways besides plunging, like going to schools, taking pledges and informing the community about the event.
Ayesha Abdul-Jillil has been working for Special Olympics Alaska for 11 years and is an athlete herself. She was at the event on Saturday, giving towels to cold plungers. She says that she’s “too cool to plunge,” but still cheers on everyone daring to jump.
“My favorite thing about the polar plunge is seeing everybody with their smiles and costumes and jumping in the cold water,” Abdul-Jillil said.
Special Olympics Alaska athletes train in 14 sports throughout the year.