Freezin’ for a Reason: Special Olympics NJ Polar Bear Plunge

Fearless swimmers gear up for their annual Seaside Heights plunge in support of Special Olympics New Jersey. This year's event is on February 23.

Fearless swimmers gear up for their annual Seaside Heights Polar Bear Plunge in support of Special Olympics New Jersey.
Polar Bear Plungers charge the Atlantic Ocean in Seaside Heights.
Courtesy of Special Olympics New Jersey

Mike Laverty saw his son Tim walk for the first time at an event hosted by Special Olympics New Jersey (SONJ), an organization that provides sports training and competition to individuals with intellectual disabilities. Tim, who uses a walker and wears leg orthotics, participated in the 50-yard dash. 

On the day of the competition, Tim, then 10, stood on the track without his walker. His teacher walked backwards in front of him with her hands outstretched. When he finished, Tim was in tears. Laverty was, too. “He walked that whole 50 yards, and I had never seen him walk across the room,” says Laverty. 

After this triumph, Tim and his sister Laura, who also has disabilities, continued to participate in SONJ activities. The organization holds more than 260 competitive events throughout the state in 24 sports, all of which are free to participants. “[SONJ] is really teaching a whole different population how to act and behave around people with disabilities,” says Laverty.

SONJ’s largest fundraiser is the Polar Bear Plunge. In the winter, participants run into the freezing Atlantic to support the 25,000 SONJ athletes. There are three annual plunges: an Asbury Park event in November, one in Wildwood in January, and one in Seaside Heights in February. Last year, about 7,100 Seaside Heights plunge participants raised more than $2.2 million.

This year’s Seaside Heights event on February 23 will be Mike Laverty’s 16th; he calls it his sweet 16. His team, the Little Silver Crocs, have raised more than $1 million over the last 15 years. Laverty alone has raised nearly $450,000. 

Before his first plunge in 2004, Laverty e-mailed his coworkers describing the first time he saw Tim walk and asking for donations. “I probably had $1,000 within the first hour,” says Laverty. “I was unbelievably touched.”

The morning of the plunge is like a tailgate for Laverty and his 50 or so teammates, who hop on a bus from Little Silver to Seaside Heights. They eat and hang out until 1 pm, when all plungers take a dip. Laverty’s other son, Matt, sometimes participates.  

“I can’t even begin to tell you what it does for me personally,” says Laverty about the plunge and the work of SONJ. “The athletes and also the families of the athletes are getting so much joy out of it.”

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