The Reason for Freezin’ Season 

By Stacey Hengsterman, President and CEO of Special Olympics New York

On February 10 in Rochester, more than 1,800 people jumped into Lake Ontario. There was snow on the shore. The lake had ice in it. They didn’t care. They had a blast.

They ran into the frigid water dressed in everything from polar bear costumes to police uniforms to swimsuits, while another thousand or so people stood outside in the bitter cold and cheered them on from the beach.

Why? Because still more people – upward of 5,000 in all – pledged to support Special Olympics New York through the Polar Plunge. With this one zany, fearless act on this one single day, more than a quarter of a million dollars was raised for our incredible Special Olympics programs and athletes.

People “take the plunge” and support those who do because our organization means something to them. Their genuine and heartfelt pride in Special Olympics New York is the lifeblood of our amazing organization. There’s just something about what we do that makes people want to be a part of it, even if it means jumping into a freezing cold lake at the height of winter.

This Special Olympics New York spirit is why we are able to provide nearly 68,000 athletes across the state with year-round authentic sports training and competition. It’s why we provide unified sports opportunities at schools across the state and offer health screenings for our athletes at every competition. It’s how we can do all this – and much more – at no cost to our athletes, their families, or their caregivers.

And few people embody the Special Olympics New York spirit better than those behind our strongest partnership, Law Enforcement Torch Run (LETR).

LETR originated in Kansas City in 1981 when Police Chief Richard LaMunyon had a vision for his officers to become more involved in the community. The police department became the official “Guardian of the Flame,” and officers would carry the Olympic torch into the opening ceremonies of local Special Olympics events. The tradition stuck. Today, LETR is the largest public awareness and fundraising group to support Special Olympics worldwide, and we are blessed to have its strong presence in the greater Rochester area and across New York state.Those 1,800 people who jumped into Lake Ontario? They also did it because Sal Gerbino asked them to.

Sal is a 30+ year veteran of the Gates Police Department and Monroe County Sheriff’s Office. He is a longtime friend of Special Olympics New York who carried the flame through several European cities at World Games in 2003. Sal founded the Rochester Polar Plunge in 2001 and has ensured its growth and success ever since. It is by far our largest and most successful plunge event of the year.

Across New York, 6,000 LETR partners like Sal coordinate numerous unique, often wacky events – including “Law and Orders” and “Cops on Top” – in addition to our Polar Plunges and traditional torch runs through communities and at major athletic competitions.
Thanks to partners like Sal in Rochester, our LETR friends statewide, and the thousands of crazy, wonderful individuals and teams who follow their lead into frigid waters throughout New York, this season’s Polar Plunges are on pace to engage 10,000 participants and raise more than $1.65 million statewide – an all-time high. If that isn’t enough to warm the hearts of all our “plungers,” I don’t know what is!

There are seven Special Olympics New York plunges remaining between now and April 6. You can sign up to become part of this remarkable movement, donate to a local plunge at www.polarplungeny.org, or make a general contribution to Special Olympics New York at www.specialolympicsny.org.