Story By Kendyl Hollingsworth
Photos By Robert Noles
After one of the hottest summers on record, Alabamians rejoiced when temperatures finally began to descend in early October. The sun shone brightly in clear blue skies as leaves began to fall, the wind gusting them in circles across roads and sidewalks. We traded our beach towels for fuzzy fleece blankets, and we packed away our shorts and swimsuits to make room for cozy sweaters and heavy winter coats.
It’ll be a little while before the warm temperatures return, but that won’t stop hordes of Lee County citizens from taking the plunge into icy waters this January. It’s a brief sacrifice of comfort that many are willing to make for local Special Olympics athletes.
Jan. 20, 2024, will mark the 12th annual Polar Plunge in the city of Auburn to raise money for the Lee County Special Olympics program.
“It’s very chilly, but it’s such a great cause, and everyone there has such great energy that it makes it really fun,” said Elizabeth Kaufman, director of Lee County Special Olympics and therapeutic programs coordinator for the city of Auburn.
What started as a small backyard fundraiser about 12 years ago has grown exponentially over the years, eventually becoming what it is today: one of the largest annual fundraisers for Lee County Special Olympics, according to Kaufman. The event regularly raises over $10,000 to benefit the program.
“This event is one of our two large fundraisers of the year and supports us in purchasing uniforms, equipment and travel for events,” she said.
Auburn Parks and Recreation partners with Lee County Special Olympics each year to put on the big event. Even the COVID-19 pandemic couldn’t stop the support; the event went on, albeit with a few tweaks — like masking outside the pool, limiting spectators and having participants take the plunge in 30-minute waves.
As director of Lee County Special Olympics, Kaufman is well-acquainted with the daring dive into Auburn’s Samford Pool. Aside from participating, she also helps host the plunge, so she gets a firsthand look at all the action.
“I co-host every year alongside one of my fabulous coworkers, and it’s a really fun time,” she said. “Everyone is excited, pumped up and we have a blast.”
Part of the fun is that the Polar Plunge boasts a different theme each year — anything from silver (the 2022 theme) to superheroes (2023). The theme for this upcoming Polar Plunge will be “2023 Trends,” and participants are encouraged to come to the pool donning a costume or outfit that reflects that. There are prizes for best costume, as well as most money raised.
“We try to keep the theme fun and different every year, and so much happened in 2023 that we thought giving people a really broad costume base might be something fun and different for this year’s plunge,” Kaufman said.
The event draws in people of all ages, whether to take the plunge or watch others do so. You may even catch Auburn Mayor Ron Anders braving the frigid waters in support of the cause.
Anyone 5 years old and up is invited to participate in the 12th annual Polar Plunge, though registration is required prior to the event.
The way it works is this: Find the event under “Therapeutics” on MyRec (www.auburnal.myrec.com/info/activities/program_details.aspx?ProgramID=30180) and follow the instructions to register.
According to the registration page, participants will also pick up a donation form to gather and record donations from friends and family leading up to the event.
“We just ask that people fundraise, try to get sponsors from local businesses, get donations from friends and family and … just kind of keep track of that, and whatever they raise they bring with them the day of the event,” Kaufman told The Observer ahead of the 2021 Polar Plunge. “[Participants] can raise any amount; we don’t have a minimum or maximum, so whatever you are able to raise we are super grateful for.”
Registration for the 12th annual Polar Plunge opens Dec. 4, 2023, and it is free to register. Everyone who signs up before Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2024, will be guaranteed a free Polar Plunge T-shirt as well.
The Polar Plunge will take place at 9 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 20, 2024, at Samford Pool, located at 465 Wrights Mill Road in Auburn. The pool is situated behind East Samford School and can be accessed from Wrights Mill Road. The parking lot also exits onto Samford Avenue.
For more information about the Polar Plunge, visit www.auburnalabama.org/parks/programs/polar-plunge/, or reach out to Kaufman by phone at 334-501-2939 or by email email@example.com.
“Be there,” Kaufman said. “You’re helping support over 300 local athletes right here in Lee and the surrounding counties, and they appreciate the community gathering around them and supporting them in all of their sports.”