ITHACA, N.Y. — Up for a cool challenge? Every year, dozens of daring people plunge into Cayuga Lake’s frigid water — currently about 36 degrees on the surface — for a good cause: supporting Special Olympics athletes.

Ithaca has two athletes currently competing in the Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi — Kinsey Henry and Cassie Taber. The Games officially kicked off with an opening ceremony Thursday, March 14. More than 7,500 athletes from nearly 200 countries will compete in summer sports, including soccer, basketball, track and field, volleyball, cycling, equestrian, and many others. Henry and Taber are both competing in track and field.

Money raised in the sixth annual Ithaca Polar Plunge planned for March 23 will help support Henry, Taber and other Special Olympics athletes in New York. The event takes place at Taughannock Falls State Park Beach, 1740 Taughannock Blvd., Trumansburg. Registration goes from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and the plunge is at 1 p.m.

“There’s really nothing like it,” said Ithaca Police Sgt. Barry Banfield. “There’s a reason people keep doing this every year.” Not only does it support a good cause, but Banfield said taking the icy plunge is like hitting the “reset button.”

People interested in supporting the event can raise money individually or as part of a team. People don’t even have to plunge to take part, they can make a donation and watch the plungers. So far, participants have raised just over $15,000 locally and they are aiming to raise at least $50,000. In addition to the plunge, there will be free music, food, and other activities at Taughannock.

The Ithaca Polar Plunge started in 2014 and is one of 21 polar plunge events hosted every year to benefit Special Olympics athletes in New York.

What brings people back every year to take the icy plunge? New York State Police Trooper Aga Dembinska said it’s all about supporting the athletes.

“We’re doing something crazy so hopefully it grabs a lot of attention,” Dembinska said. “At the same time, it’s a very positive event to raise awareness and raise money for Special Olympics.”

“When they see so many people supporting them at something like the Polar Plunge, you can’t even describe the feeling you get,” Banfield added. “You see how happy they are, all the attention’s on them, they’re the stars. They love it. They love having us there. They love having everyone there cheering them on and seeing everybody together. It just kind of reminds you of what’s important.”

Banfield and Dembinska are both on the New York committee of the Law Enforcement Torch Run, an organization that supports Special Olympics athletes. Many local law enforcement agencies have teams, including New York State Park Police — currently the top fundraiser with $2,215; New York State Police; and the Ithaca Police Department. There are also teams from Ithaca College and Cornell, the Ithaca City School District and others.

A New York State Police underwater recovery team will be standing by for safety purposes.

The Special Olympics, which was founded in 1968, provides year-round sports training and athletic competitions for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. In New York alone, more than 68,000 athletes are involved every year and the athletes and their families do not pay to participate, according to their website.

Aside from the polar plunge, there are several events throughout the year that support Special Olympics. The next one will be the Law Enforcement Torch Run on May 15. Last year, torch runs alone raised over $2 million for the Special Olympics.

More information about the Ithaca Polar Plunge can be found here or at the Facebook event page. Learn more about Special Olympics New York here and the Law Enforcement Torch Run for Special Olympics here.

Kelsey O'Connor

Kelsey O'Connor is the managing editor for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at koconnor@ithacavoice.com and follow her on Twitter @bykelseyoconnor.