Posted: March 30, 2015 at 9:15 pm

By Lauren Caccamo, Zach Oser, Maurice Matthews, and Katie Fitzgerald

Eleven years ago, John Corbett decided it was time to try something different. To raise money and awareness for Special Olympics West Virginia, he would jump into the freezing Monongahela River.

“You feel sort of exhilarated after you get out of that water,” Corbett said. “You feel good the rest of that day. I don’t know why that is, but I just know that for me, it is.”

Since then, the event has skyrocketed in popularity. Now launched in five cities across the state, raising an average of $18,000 to $25,000 for the annual basketball tournament held in Morgantown, W. Va.

As the chief executive officer for Special Olympics West Virginia, Corbett has watched the once-experimental fundraising effort evolve into something locals look forward to every year—the Polar Plunge. Participants, who must raise at least $50 to “plunge,” attend the event dressed in costumes and jump into the frigid waters of the Monongahela River.

Corbett said that over the years, the fundraiser has received a particularly enthusiastic turn out from Morgantown residents and that he has seen some “incredibly creative costumes,” including a group who impersonated the rock band Kiss, a couple as Fred and Wilma Flintstone, and even a belly dancer.

“With everybody typically being cooped up in the wintertime and not having a chance to get out, this is something fun to do and it’s nice to see some folks come out with some energy and enthusiasm,” Corbett said.

But the Polar Plunge doesn’t only fuel a basketball tournament. Special Olympics provides individuals with intellectual disabilities an opportunity to participate in school or community sports teams, giving them the chance to compete and showcase skills in front of their family and peers.

“What’s important with the Special Olympic athletes is they don’t have the same opportunities as typical kids do, so this helps their feelings about that,” said John Stemple, Monongalia County Director and Special Olympic basketball team coach.

According to Stemple, there are around 80 active athletes in the county alone. The tournament is expected to attract an estimated 600 Special Olympic athletes from all around the state.