During a chilly Saturday morning, Special Olympics Tennessee, along with Austin Peay State University and the Clarksville Police Department, held its annual Polar Plunge at the Foy Fitness and Recreation Center Pool on Feb. 6 at 10 a.m. – 12 p.m.

APSU students and people of Clarksville plunge in cold water to support the Special Olympics Tennessee by donating to SOTN athletes. Plungers had to donate a minimum of $50 while students donated $30. They received official Plunge T-shirts by donating and participating. Social distancing and masks were required.

Special Olympics Tennessee and APSU decided to hold Polar Plunge on campus despite the COVID-19 pandemic, but they opened a virtual event for Plungers who were unable to participate at the Foy. Plungers at home participated Polar Plunge in different ways, including Slip & Slides, water balloon fights, and swimming pools.

Special Olympics Tennessee in-person and virtual events helped ease loneliness in SOTN athletes as they have been isolated from in-person events due to COVID-19. The isolation affected their mental and physical health as they were unable to participate at in-person events and lacked physical activities to stay fit.

Now, SOTN is hosting virtual events for athletes to participate and stay healthy during the difficult time, and athletes are preparing to return safely to in-person events, according to the Clarksville Polar Plunge 2021 website.

“We’re a little upset that we can’t have our athletes out here, but safety is going to be the top priority for us, and the Polar Plunge is helping us not only create virtual programming for our athletes to help them stay fit and healthy, but it’s also going to give us this what we need to return to play,” Vice President of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Amy Parker said. “When we get back on the playing field, we’re going to have to have all these precautions set in place to help our athletes, and so having the Polar Plunge and fundraising from that will help us financially provide for our athletes on the playing field.”

Students from college organizations, including Emily Waldon and Kendall Todd from Alpha Sigma Alpha, came to the Foy to participate in Polar Plunge to support Special Olympics Tennessee. According to Vice President of PR and Recruitment Emily Waldon, Polar Plunge is one of Alpha Sigma Alpha’s national philanthropies. Waldon shared her concerns about COVID-19 affecting fundraising events and how Polar Plunge is supporting SOTN athletes during the pandemic.

“So, Polar Plunge is something we do every year, and we have other events as well to, you know, raise money and donate it, and that has affected a lot with us trying to get together and to fundraise because there’s just no way it’s safe to everyone because we want to keep everyone safe. At the same time, we want to support our philanthropies because it’s something that is near and dear to our hearts.” Waldon said.

Alpha Sigma Alpha has been supporting Special Olympics Tennessee by participating Polar Plunge every year. The sorority has been writing letters of encouragement to SOTN participants and their families. To Waldon, helping others is “the key to happiness.”

“It’s not about jumping in and having fun. It’s about being there for these people and supporting them and showing that support, too. So, that’s why it’s so important to me because I just want to support others and lift them up,” Waldon said.

Other Plungers shared their support for SOTN and their concerns with COVID-19 affecting the athletes and the organization.

Clarksville police officer Michael Patterson showed his support for SOTN for his sister with special needs. He said that organizations like Special Olympics Tennessee still need support during the pandemic and that SOTN is a beneficial organization for helping Special Olympic athletes.

“They still, organizations like Special Olympics, need the support and so you try to give all the support that you can and every event like the Polar Plunge, that’s a good outside event,” Patterson said. “It’s at the pool. You’re on campus. We’re able, you know, social distance and spread.”

Patterson also said that with virtual events, technology has helped participants to become involved when they could not be involved in-person. He believed that it is the “next big thing” and that tools like Zoom can ease loneliness in athletes by making them see their friends and other athletes online.

“It’s not as good as face-to-face, but it’s the next best thing, but I think it’s still beneficial as long as you can be involved in some way and be able to participate in some way,” Patterson said.

Assistant Coach Tracy Hoza arrived at Polar Plunge for the first time. She said that athletes need support from people and need them to be physically present with them, even during the pandemic. 

“One, it raises money for Special Olympics, and that’s important. And two, it’s a fun thing to do. You know it’s hard, but you got to do it,” Hoza said.

Michael Henchen, a junior and a Health and Human Performance major, said that Special Olympics Tennessee has a good social network and that Polar Plunge “helps build self-confidence” and a community.

“There’s a good support network like maybe if they had a Facebook group or, you know, something to promote it and kind of get them involved and cheering each other on,” Henchen said.

Junior and Nursing major Jenna Powell and her mother Dulce Powell, a fifth grade teacher at Liberty Elementary School, were two of the last Plungers to jump. Jenna Powell hoped that Special Olympics Tennessee would continue its events, even during the pandemic.

“It’s a fun event, bring people to community, and it brings awareness to the Special Olympics,” Jenna Powell said.