Chicagoans take a Polar Plunge in Lake Michigan’s icy waters for charity

By Sam Tucker, Photojournalist

Sunshine poured onto Oak Street Beach as the Chicago Polar Bear Club hosted its annual Polar Plunge, where Chicagoans dove into frigid Lake Michigan to fundraise for local families in need.

The Chicago Polar Bear Club is a grassroots, nonprofit organization founded by Brian Marchal, aiming to raise funds for local families in need of financial support through an annual Polar Plunge.

Twenty years ago, the first plunge was just Marchal and some friends.

“That first year, there were three of us. Those early years, there was always about 20 or so [people],” Marchal said. “It’s really amazing to see the growth and to see people coming back year after year. It’s really nice to see a tradition.”

Shortly after the first plunge Marchal organized in 2002, he found out a family member was in need of a double lung transplant. The next year Marchal and his friends raised funds through word of mouth, raising $6,800 for the family member. Now the CPBC fundraises through a participant registration of $30, online donations and company sponsorships. Sponsors include local and national nonprofits and businesses including the FT Cares Foundation, Westward 360, Tito’s Handmade Vodka and the Girard Law Group.

“We just realized that if we knew somebody, everybody must know somebody that you work with, you go to church with or part of your family. You must know somebody that needs help, too,” Marchal said.

After realizing this in 2004, the CPBC, originally named the Lakeview Polar Bear Club, allowed donors and participants to nominate families they know who are in need of support. To reflect this extension of the club’s impact in Chicago, they later rebranded to the Chicago Polar Bear Club.

This year’s Polar Plunge at Oak Street Beach on Feb. 26 saw a registration of about 420 people. Marchal told the Chronicle via email March 4 this year’s event has so far raised $48,500, “with a few donations still coming in,” surpassing its $25,000 goal. The funds from the event went to three families struggling with medical expenses, housing expenses and caring for their loved ones, all of whom were nominated by the CPBC club members and donors to the event.

Diana Gaytan from Elgin, Illinois, took the plunge with a friend because she wanted to challenge herself to do something she did not think she could do.

“I love my warm showers … and I could never do cold,” Gaytan said. “And this was the opportunity to do things that I don’t think I’m able to do, and I did it.”

Lake Michigan’s water temperature was just above 33 degrees on the day of the plunge according to Sea Temperature, an online water temperature resource.

“It gets your heart racing a little bit and doing hard stuff is what’s part of life, and [it’s a] good memory,” said Matt Rosner, a Chicago resident who plunged with CPBC in previous years and again this year.

The CPBC hosts the Polar Plunge every January, but last year, due to COVID-19, the event took place virtually, with participants donating and uploading a video of their individual plunge. This year’s plunge was postponed due to an increase in COVID-19 cases in January.

Jonathan McCormick, a first-time polar plunger and Chicago resident, said he enjoyed seeing people out and about, especially with people’s isolated lifestyles during the pandemic.

“It’s nice to see people out happy, having a good time, McCormick said. “Getting back to something more normal, finally.”