Smiles, screams and shivers signal successful Polar Bear Plunge

The lure of free T-shirts brought friends Mackenzie Lancaster, Makenzie Robinson, Isaiah Bussey, Joshua Gordon and Emmanuel Ruffin to the Eakin Student Recreation Center at 5:15 p.m. — more than an hour before the 26th annual Polar Bear Plunge started.

Their group was first in a line that snaked around the deck of the indoor pool and into the rec center lobby and beyond. About 900 students, faculty and staff registered for the event, and 670 officially jumped in the outdoor pool on Thursday.

“I just want a shirt,” said Ruffin, a freshman from Rocky Mount. “I didn’t know there was going to be food, so I can eat too.”

With under two minutes until ‘go time,’ volunteers motioned them outdoors in the first group of jumpers with ECU Chancellor Philip Rogers.

“This is really starting my semester off on a high note, to do something like this with a whole bunch of people. It was fun,” said Robinson, a freshman from Raleigh.

“I’m a theater kid so of course I was dramatic,” said Bussey, who’s from Raleigh. “I’ll probably do it again next year.”

Rogers was excited to join in his first year as chancellor. “It was so much fun just being able to connect with our students in one of our long-held traditions,” he said. “It’s the perfect night for Polar Bear Plunge. I think it’s cheating to do this in temperatures above 50 degrees.”

Thursday night hovered in the upper 30s to around 40 degrees, while a steady rain and gusty winds made it feel colder. But it wasn’t the coldest plunge on record. That was 14 degrees in 2014, the same year a record was set for the most participants — 1,200.

As groups of jumpers moved to the edge of the pool, Ant Rascoe with DJ High Demand offered encouraging — albeit debatable — words. “The water is really warm. You don’t have anything to worry about, I promise,” he said. And afterwards: “Great job! You’re now part of a tradition.”

Chancellor Philip Rogers joined students in the Polar Bear Plunge event.

Molly Thomas, a freshman from Philadelphia, decided to jump with friends Holly Schlagel and Lindsey Aiken after seeing the event advertised in their Ballard West residence hall. “We all held hands and jumped in. It was fun doing it together.”

On the eve of forecasted wintry weather, sophomore Alyssa Bennett said, “it would be better if it was snowing.” The Morganton native dried off inside after jumping in the event for the first time. “I wanted to do it last year but couldn’t because of COVID.”

Despite the pandemic, the event has been happening since 1997, when it was one of several grand opening activities at the student rec center.

Four years after that, Karen Kus started volunteering at Polar Plunge. Kus joined ECU’s student affairs division in 2001 and stayed involved after moving into academic affairs. She even recruited her husband, Don, who doesn’t work at ECU, about six years ago. They handed out T-shirts to newly christened jumpers.

“I love it,” said Kus, director of the Center for Student Success in the College of Business. “I love seeing the people. It’s a community. And the students don’t just see me for academic advising. They see me after they jump in the pool.”

Jenny C. Gregory, coordinator of Polar Plunge and assistant director for communications and promotions with Campus Recreation & Wellness, said she’s proud of the longtime event’s success.

“I think everyone had a good time,” she said. “I did hear one student say, ‘This year is so much better than last year!’ That made me smile. This tells me students still want this event.”

SGA president Chandler Ward dives in during the 26th annual Polar Bear Plunge.