On Sunday, February 4, over 4,000 people ran into the Atlantic Ocean from the beach in Rehoboth as part of the Polar Bear Plunge to benefit Special Olympics. The event raised a record $1.5 million for the organization with the record number of participants joining the plunge from across the state.
“The water temperature was 41 degrees, and the air temperature was also 41 degrees at 1 PM when the plunge began,” Jon Buzby of Special Olympics Delaware said. “This was our largest, most successful event.”
The benefit for Special Olympics got its start with the Lewes Polar Bears Club, created by Dave “Da Bear” Frederick, who gathered friends and family to plunge into the ocean at Cape Henlopen State Park starting in 1982. The club still continues to plunge on the first Sunday of the month from November until March with the exception of January when they plunge on New Year’s Day.
In 1991, Special Olympics Delaware approached the club with an idea to partner with one of the plunges as a fund raising event. In 1992, the club agreed to dedicate the February plunge to Special Olympics Delaware. Since that time, the February plunge has been dedicated to the organization, becoming one of the most significant and successful fundraisers in the state.
According to Special Olympics Delaware, there were just 78 participants at the first event in 1992, raising $7,000. By 1995, the number had grown to 339 in a year where the temperature hovered around zero with a wind chill of -25 degrees. The following year, 1996, Cape Henlopen State Park was closed due to a nor’easter so the plunge was postponed until March. In 1998, another nor’easter damaged the park, requiring organizers to move the plunge to Rehoboth where it has remained.
As the Polar Bear Plunge for Special Olympics grew, it was decided to create an entire weekend dedicated to the fundraiser. In 2009, the first Polar Bear Weekend Festival attracted what was then a record 2,923 plungers who raised $490,000. The following year, another nor’easter dumped over two feet of snow across the state, again postponing the event to March. At that event, over $500,000 was raised by $2,683 Bears.
The event continued to grow and, in 2011, the Polar Bear Cake-Off celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Polar Bear Plunge with 3,094 plungers who raised over $550,000. At the 25th anniversary celebration in 2016, over $780,000 was raised by the 3,325 Polar Bears, bringing the total amount raised over the 25 year history to more than $8.3 million.
The first million dollar year of the plunge was in 2020 when 3,733 Polar Bears participated with an event that occurred just prior to the COVID-19 shutdowns. In 2021, the event was held virtually due to the pandemic. Despite being unable to gather to plunge into the ocean, 2,298 Polar Bears raised more than $700,000 and created a virtual option that remains
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