Waukegan Polar Bear Plunge draws hundreds in support of special recreation

Event exceeds expectations with 338 participants this year

JoAnn Flores-Deter, of Waukegan holds a plunger Jan. 1 while coming out of the cold water after taking the plunge in Lake Michigan during the 24th annual Waukegan Polar Bear Plunge at Waukegan Municipal Beach. Genevive Klimala, of Burlington, Wis., followed behind her.

WAUKEGAN – When it comes to the Waukegan Polar Bear Plunge, Eric Romero goes all in.

The Metra conductor from Waukegan not only has plunged into frigid Lake Michigan waters every new year for the past decade, but he’s also thrown himself into fundraising.

“I figure if I’m going to do something, I’m not going to half it,” said Romero, who raised more than $1,600 – among the highest amounts raised by an individual – as part of the 24th annual event.

Taking place on New Year’s Day at Waukegan Municipal Beach, the Waukegan Polar Bear Plunge once again raised money for Special Recreation Services of Northern Lake County to help individuals with disabilities participate in camps, athletics, health and fitness programs and more.

With 338 participants this year, the event exceeded expectations.

Organizers had hoped for at least 300 plungers, said Kari Robinson, recreation supervisor of special recreation for the Waukegan Park District, which hosts the plunge in partnership with the city of Waukegan.

Although the amount of donations had yet to be finalized, she was optimistic goals would be met.

“Last year, we were above the $12,000 range,” she said. “Any time we’re above $10,000, we consider that a win.”

The funding benefits teams that compete in the Special Olympics by helping to offset travel and other expenses, she said.

“We also use it to offset funding for everyone,” Robinson said. “We offset the cost of a lot of our programs so that it’s reasonable for people to come.”

Because of the pandemic, the plunge was virtual in 2021. Plungers – many of them regulars – returned in person in 2022, when overcast weather brought wind and 30-degree lakefront temperatures.

With an air temperature of 39 degrees and the water about 38 degrees, this year’s plunge was a bit warmer than years past.

“It was cold, but I don’t think it was the coldest it’s been,” said Char Wozniak of Waukegan, who has taken part for the past eight or nine years. She raised more than $500 this year.

“Special rec is a very deep-felt thing for me,” she said.

Top fundraisers such as Wozniak earn recognition with callouts on T-shirts.

Plunging since 2013, Romero was recognized by the park district in 2018 for raising about $10,000 in total donations.

“When I first heard of the Polar Plunge, I was like, ‘That’s nuts. I would never do that,’” he remembered.

Later, he reconsidered.

“This is a really good cause,” he said. “I can punish myself for something like this. … I had a decent amount of success my first year. It felt really good. I was like, ‘OK, I’ll do this again.’ It just kept being something I wanted to do.”

The father of two said he likes to set a good example for his children.

“I kind of want to show them that it doesn’t take much to help, you know,” he said. “You should be doing something in your community.”

The cause also inspires Jacqueline Smith of Waukegan, who brought in more than 250 donations, including a $1,000 donation from her employer, William A Randolph Construction in Gurnee.

She and her family, including her husband, Chad Smith, and 14-year-old twin stepdaughters Aubry and Regan, have plunged for the past four or five years.

“That’s our New Year thing,” Jacqueline Smith said. “That’s how we start the year. We enjoy being able to do it every year, and it’s for a great cause.”