East Carolina University's 25th annual Polar Bear Plunge will kick off on Feb. 25 from 5 to 9:45 p.m. at the Eakin Student Recreation Center, located at 128 E Seventh St., with slight changes to the traditional event with COVID-19 protocols in place.
Assistant Director of Sport and Youth Programs and Polar Bear Plunge Coordinator Jon Wall said the Polar Bear Plunge is an event where students jump into a cold pool at the Eakin Student Recreation Center, which some may find as a typical activity, while others have turned the event into a custom at ECU.
“In some ways it’s (the Polar Bear Plunge) really simple but also what I think a lot of people have kind of latched onto is the fact that it’s an ECU tradition,” Wall said. “There’s so many people that want to do it just to say that they’ve done it.”
Wall said the Polar Bear Plunge is essentially the “birthday of the recreation center.” He said since the recreation center opened in 1997, the plunge has been held every year to commemorate the center.
Many students participate in the Polar Bear Plunge as a group, whether it be with their friends, clubs or sports team, Wall said. Participants get a T-shirt designed by the Communication and Promotion Team, which is an aspect of the activity that students are excited for as it represents that they took the risk and participated in the tradition, according to Wall.
“I think we maxed out a couple years ago, probably 1,100 (participants) and then, typically we have around 800-900,” Wall said. “Obviously this year will be a lot less just because of the circumstances surrounding it (COVID-19).”
In regards to COVID-19, Wall said participants will jump in groups of 10, in 10 minute increments, to ensure they are socially distanced. He said in the past, the event included DJ’s and food services, which will not be present this year.
Wall said he encourages participants to attend the event already dressed in their bathing suits to limit the amount of people in the locker room. He said participants will be required to bring their own towel and wear a mask at all times besides when they jump into the pool.
“If they (participants) come dressed, jump, dry off real quick and then go, that's what we’re really encouraging,” Wall said. “Just be prepared for the water to be really cold.”
Wall said since he’s been at ECU he has worked with the event, but if he was a student he would definitely participate in the jump to partake in the tradition.
Sophomore nursing major Sarah Johnson said she participated in the Polar Bear Plunge with her friends in 2020 after she saw advertisements for the event around campus. She said the experience was a rush.
“There were a lot of people, so it made me want to be the first in line,” Johnson said. “I got scared at the last minute, but it wasn't as bad as I thought. It hit me (the cold), but it wasn’t painful.”
Johnson’s advice for someone who wants to participate in the event would be to go with friends to enhance the thrill and excitement of the jump. If she wasn’t so busy, she would participate again this year, she said.
The flyers Johnson said she saw at the campus recreation center, dining halls and residence halls persuaded her to attend the Polar Bear Plunge event in the past.
“I didn't want to do it at first because it’s cold, I don't like the cold personally, but then lots of people talked about it,” Johnson said.
Sophomore history and anthropology double major Jess Topolewski participated in the jump in 2020. She said she plans to jump this year as well as it was a fun activity to do with her friends.
Topolewski said she decided to attend this year because COVID-19 has restricted her ability to get out of her apartment and see friends.
“Last year I decided to do it because all of my friends were and I figured it couldn't hurt,” Topolewski said. “This year I’m doing it because everything’s online and we're all stuck in our houses and apartments not doing anything, so, it’s just something to get out.”
When she participated in 2020, Topolewski said she knew the pool would be cold, but she wasn't prepared for the 40 degree water. As soon as she got out of the cold pool, she was able to run inside and jump into the warm indoor pool, she said.
Topolewski said she saw the Polar Bear Plunge listed under “special events” on Engage, which is how she heard about the 2021 event. She said she feels safe with the COVID-19 protocols in place.
“They have half-hour blocks. You sign up for a block and then it's 30 people and they separate you into groups of 10,” Topolewski said. “I think requiring everyone to wear a mask until they get into the pool and then once they get out, I feel pretty safe.”
Topolewski said the jump seems scary at first, but overall the experience is a lot of fun and students will regret it if they don't attend. She said she will continue to participate in the Polar Bear Plunge throughout her years at ECU.
Additional information, requirements and history about the Polar Bear Plunge can be found on ECU’s News Services page.