Londoners plunge into icy water to raise money for Special Olympics. Indraja Gugle reports from the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Sub-editor: Jipsa George
On a Saturday morning in February, as the temperature dipped below 5˚ Celsius, Londoners gathered at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park to plunge in icy water for the inaugural Great Britain Polar Plunge. This feat was designed to raise money for Special Olympics. London may be used to its inhabitants jogging in the snow, but a plunge in glacial water goes to show their great support towards inclusive sports like the Special Olympics.
Sarah, a participant, was raring to go with her team of eight. “It’s all right so far, although we got more scared when we looked at the pool and there was lots of ice on top. But it’s for a good cause. We’ve raised quite a lot of money and we’re proud of ourselves. We’re up for it!”
One hundred participants rose to the challenge, raising more than £26,000. The atmosphere was one of nervous excitement and sheer intrepidity. An arctic open-air pool had been specially constructed for the event. Many participants were in fancy dress, ranging from Spiderman to Ninjas. Spectator’s eyes grew wide with wonder when children shorter than 4 feet took the icy challenge.
The entry cost was £20 for adults, £16 for students and £10 for children over 12 and £5 for those under 12. Plungers were encouraged to raise £50 or more each in support of the Special Olympics athletes.
Special Olympics is often confused with the Paralympics event that is for people with physical impairments. Special Olympics is the world’s largest sports organisation for those with intellectual disabilities.
Sarah Ball, events director for Special Olympics, says: “The Special Olympics is part of the Olympic family. Unlike the other two (Olympics and Paralympics) which are elite sports, we are fully inclusive and open to all abilities, people with learning disabilities specifically.”
Speaking from the Olympic Park on Saturday, Ball says: “The response has been phenomenal. We’ve managed to get the polar plunge to the UK for the first time in London. And we’ve got a good hundred or so people who’ve decided to come down in fancy dress and jump into a pool of freezing cold water on a freezing cold day. It’s been great fun and it means a lot to the charity Special Olympics GB that they’ve done that for us.”
An executive plunge had also been arranged the day before. Executives from National Grid, a polar explorer, Rosie Stancer, and some other executives raised just above £10,000.
Polar bear plunges that originated in Scandinavia are very popular in the USA where people jump into icy open water bodies during winter to raise money for charitable organizations. Thousands of dollars are raised every year across the world in this way.
Crowds were cheering the participants on and there was live music and other performances to keep the tempo up. Once out of the frigid pool, plungers were immediately wrapped in insulating sheets.
St. John Ambulance was on standby in case of any emergencies, but the programme went smoothly without any calls of distress. Allan Medcraft, a first aider, says: “It’s been well organised, well run, lot of safety and precautions. It’s been excellent. The children, I think, did exceptionally well.” Alan had been on duty at similar events, but “not with a pool like this where they’ve jumped into ice and it was ice.”
Anna Weston, an advanced open water diver, was volunteering at the arctic pool by helping children and others out of the freezing water. Clad in eight layers at the end of the event, she was full of spirits. “I really enjoyed volunteering. Special Olympics is quite close to my heart. My brother, Daniel, is an athlete for the Special Olympics GB team. He’s a cyclist and he is going to LA for the World Summer Games.”