Taking the Polar Bear Plunge

The sounds of splashing swimming pool water, screams and music are synonymous with summer, but as part of an East Carolina University campus tradition, they rang out on a wintry Greenville Thursday night.

Students jump into the Eakin Student Recreation Center outdoor swimming pool as part of the 2024 Polar Bear Plunge. (ECU Photo by Steven Mantilla)

For the past 28 years, the ECU community has gathered on the third Thursday in January to participate in the annual Polar Bear Plunge at the Eakin Student Recreation Center outdoor swimming pool.

The Polar Bear Plunge was developed by Nance Mize, who served as the director of Campus Recreation and Wellness from 1982-2015. She was a driving force, along with former chancellor Richard Eakin, in helping the then-new building go from an idea to a reality.

“The center was scheduled to open in January 1997 after a series of delays,” said Mize. “In order to celebrate, we planned a whole week of grand opening celebrations with something each night and culminating in the Polar Bear Plunge on Thursday.”

The opening of the new building was celebrated, but the initial reception of the cold-water event was a little less than warm.

“We hyped up the event, but it was a hard sell,” said Mize of the inaugural Polar Bear Plunge. “We had 35 jumpers, and it took some encouraging to get that many.”

As time went on, the event began to grow, and necessary changes came.

“By the second or third year we had to adjust how we did the jump,” said Mize. “Originally, we had everyone jump at once, but it kept growing and people were jumping on top of each other. We changed it to having roughly 25 people jump at a time.”

Jenny Gregory, senior assistant director of communications and promotions for Campus Recreation and Wellness, believes that the driving force behind the event’s longevity comes from a mix of marketing and word of mouth from different campus constituents.

“We use the Polar Bear Plunge as our birthday party. We choose a different theme every year and students are passionate to see what the polar bear looks like,” said Gregory. “It’s the same event, people jump into the pool and then get out. It’s a lot about the design. It’s a lot about the T-shirt. It’s a lot about the event being a tradition. The admissions office mentions the event as a campus tradition to potential students, so students are aware of the event even before they arrive. The resident advisors do a fabulous job at getting their students to come over and jump together.”

After the last participant emerges from the water, a student organization fair is held in the building along with activities that include trivia, dance competitions, entertainment and various games. Gregory estimates that in 2023 over 4,000 students walked through the doors including slightly over 1,100 jumpers. In 2014, a record 1,200 jumpers took part.

“The student organization fair allows students to go learn about what activities are offered on campus,” said Dr. LaNika Wright, associate vice chancellor of health and well-being. “The Polar Bear Plunge and the student organization fair help students to become engaged in the ECU community and build a sense of belonging.”

Although one might think the water temperature is the most important factor in determining the number of participants, Gregory has found that the weather on the day of the event plays a major role.

“If the weather is too warm, we’ve found that we don’t have a lot of jumpers,” said Gregory. “One year the temperature was in the 30s with sleet and we had a decent number of participants. If it’s around 40 degrees and clear, we’ll have a good number.”

This year, 755 jumpers braved 49-degree air temperatures and water temperatures in the upper 30s to participate.

The breakdown of jumpers tends to be relatively close to a 50/50 male/female split, but the age group of the participants tends to be on the younger side.

“We are seeing an increase in graduate and professional students taking part, but the majority of participants are undergrads,” said Gregory. “We have an ECU transit bus running back and forth directly from the College Hill neighborhood to make it easier for groups of students to get here. We’ll get a handful or so of faculty and staff to participate as well.”

Max Lukas, a senior from Cary, found that the Polar Bear Plunge became an annual tradition and a way to both get active on campus and collect the prized T-shirt.

“I’ve done it all four years,” said Lukas. “The first time in 2020, it was one of the things that got me out of my room, and I had a lot of fun. My best friend and I made it a tradition each year to come and get the shirt, so now I have one from each of the last four years. I’m really excited about that.”

For anyone who might be apprehensive about participating, Lukas believes that the best way to get over their fear is to just jump right in.

“It’s a lot of fun, but you’re not the only one who’s nervous. For us who have done it multiple times, we know it’s awesome, but we all had to do it the first time. Nobody wants to be cold but it’s a lot of fun when you jump in and everyone is screaming at the same time.”

Lillian Moore of New Bern and Megan Giancola of Willow Springs jumped in a group together. Moore was a repeat participant, while Giancola took part for the first time.

“It’s exhilarating,” said Moore. “It’s super fun and I was excited to jump again this year.”

“I regretted not doing it last year and feel like I had to,” said Giancola. “Peer pressure was definitely part of it. We stood in line since 4 p.m. waiting.”

A few weeks before retiring, Director of Housing Operations Aaron Lucier wasn’t about to miss the opportunity to participate.

“I have jumped most of the years since the first event, missing a few for illness and work travel – but retiring this month I would have hated to miss the experience,” said Lucier. “The students get so excited, so it is a great event to be part of.”

As one of the original 35 participants, Gregory has seen the event grow from its infancy to holding a firm grip on the ECU campus calendar.

“I jumped when I was a freshman,” said Gregory. “I came here in August of 1997 and jumped when I was an undergrad. I never thought I would be back here being the event coordinator. The Polar Bear Plunge is something that our students look forward to every year.”