The 2014 Chicago Polar Plunge was a swimming success.

The Chicago Polar Plunge has been a long-standing winter tradition in Chicago for 14 years. Since 2006, Executive Director of Chicago Special Olympics, Susan Nicholl, has worked hard to produce a top notch event complete with promotions, local celebrities, politicians, food, beer, music and warm up parties.

This year the Special Olympics Chicago board wanted to ratchet up the level of political involvement.  So they asked Mayor Emanuel to jump in the lake…for a good cause, of course.  The Mayor and his team used the opportunity to create a little buzz and promotion of their own.  They quickly engaged Chicago Public School students and challenged them.  If students read 2 million books over the summer the Mayor would jump in the lake.

Students read 2.1 million books and the Mayor committed to plunging.  However, Mayor Emanuel took the opportunity one step further.


(Jimmy Fallon, People Magazine, Susan's favorite 2014 Chicago Polar Plunge picture)

Below is my post-event interview with Executive Director and Producer of the Chicago Polar Plunge, Susan Nicholl.

How many plungers jumped in the water at the very first Polar Plunge? What was the total amount of money raised that year?

At the first Chicago Polar Plunge 14 years ago there were just over 100 participants, comprised mostly of Chicago Park District employees.  Many Special Olympics state organizations at that time adopted the Plunge as a signature event and Chicago is naturally a "polar" setting so the event had nothing but potential.  That first year only a few thousand dollars was raised but every dollar mattered then. And still does!

Tell us a bit more about the first year you produced this event? What did it look like?

2006 was the first year that I helped on the Plunge and $116,000 was raised that year.  There were not many organized teams participating and online fundraising was just evolving at that time.  We reached out to groups of every type - softball teams, alumni groups, sororities, fraternities, rugby teams, etc - and offered them a free bus if their team had 20+ plungers.  That touch was well received.  If we are going to have people fund raise and jump in freezing water we can at least give people a ride to the beach!   Online fundraising took off that year making it easy for people to collect donations so it was a perfect equation.  We have created fundraising incentives over the years and try to never lose sight that we have our participants and their donors to thank for our success.  Talk about kind hearted people!

Incredibly, we did exceed our goal of $1,000,000 at this year's event!  These funds will allow us to accommodate the programs enjoyed throughout the year by our 5,000+ Chicago athletes.  We offer 22 sports competitions as well as training and social offerings as well.  The first Special Olympics games were held in July of 1968 at Soldier Field.  We take great pride in the fact that this world changing movement was "Born in Chicago" and are thrilled to plan for a continued bright future for our athletes.

What did both numbers officially balloon to this year?

This year we had 3,200 spirited people participate.  Roughly half of our Plungers this year participated last year and the other half were recruited by friends.  People start by wanting to check the Plunge off their "bucket list" but we have die-hards that have been with us since the beginning - talk about dedication!

So the game changed twice this year for the Polar Plunge.  Once in the summer when Mayor agreed to be a plunger and then a second time when #SwimmyJimmy agreed to plunge approximately 2 weeks before the event. 

Did the original plan get thrown out the window once Fallon committed? Tell us more about how your event plans had to evolve because of this great opportunity?

With the record cold temps and snowfall we had this past winter, we really had to be creative in meeting our numbers.  We rewarded people who registered on the coldest of days by offering them a free souvenir scarf and that was well received.  However, that snow kept coming and it made it much harder to convince people that jumping in the lake was a good idea!  We basically say that only the “funnest” of the fun need apply and let's face it, there are a lot of fun people in Chicago!

However, once Mayor Emanuel invited Jimmy Fallon to participate, we really got excited that a record cold winter could possibly become a record setting Plunge for us!  We tried to not let our excitement overtake us but that was difficult!  The Tweets back and forth between Mayor Emanuel and Jimmy were a lot of fun and we started a campaign on Twitter #jimmyplungewithus which ignited a lot of fun activity.  People really responded when Jimmy tweeted and asked if Chicago would have his back if he Plunged.  When he announced via Twitter that he was in, we were beyond excited!   The most surreal moment was when Jimmy actually mentioned the Chicago Polar Plunge on his show.

Below is the screen shot of the initial Twitter exchange that started it all!

Jimmy_Rahm tweets

Mayor Emanuel and other elected officials were always set to participate this year so we did have new plans in place to accommodate the media and increased spectators.  However, when the host of the #1 late night tv show announces he is coming to your beach party, we had a bit more to do in terms of fine tuning those plans.  Basically, we needed to add more bleachers and had to accommodate a greater interest from media outlets.

We did see a jump in participation due to Jimmy Fallon's participation. Orders for shirts, towels, souvenir items and post event refreshments were all increased.  We also revised plans adding more security and barricades and also increased a few of our warming tents.  With snow on Friday and Saturday of event weekend, we also had to stay on top of our snow removal around the site.  As Jimmy said when talking about the event on Monday following the Plunge, "Chicago didn't mess around.  They even added a blizzard to really make the event extra challenging."
It was fun to also have cast members of Chicago Fire and Chicago PD join in the fun.  NBC 5 Chicago has been our media partner for many years and the coverage and support they gave us this year was incredible.  NBC 5 Chicago streamed the event on logging more than 18,000 views live and more than 450,000 views for its post-plunge coverage.

The Mayor's Office was a pleasure to work with and handled so much of the media relations which allowed us to produce a safe and fun event.

We owe all thanks to Mayor Emanuel for the whole Jimmy Fallon part of our event!  One small dare turned into awareness that we never could have imagined!

Was this year an anomaly or was it the launch pad for continued high profile things to come in the future for the Plunge? Do you feel pressure to raise the bar? Have you given the future any thought?

I think the 2014 Chicago Polar Plunge will definitely go in our books as an exceptional year!  That said, the awareness that we enjoyed can only help us next year and beyond.  Jimmy Fallon had Steve Harvey on The Tonight Show as a guest a few days after the Plunge and they talked about the event for several minutes.  We sent Steve a VIP bathrobe (Very Important Plunger) and invited him to join us in 2015.  Also, don't be surprised if we start a #swimmyplunge2 Twitter campaign. Never say never, Jimmy!


Executive Director Susan Nicholl has been producing events for over 35 years.  A small bio and history are below.  It’s obvious Susan’s strong commitment to Special Olympics Chicago, her honed event planning skills and her ability to connect so well with all of the people needed to make this event happen allowed her to successfully produce a whirl-wind event.

I started working in the world of events 35 years ago when working at a running store in high school and timing area running races.  Back in those days we had runners finish down a chute and we used to time finishers by handing out popsicle sticks with numbers written on them indicating their overall place!   Times have certainly changed with the incredible advancements with chip timing.   I still work with the person I worked for at the time - - the events world in Chicago is a small community made up of many dedicated people who keep things a lot of fun!   Together we worked on the first triathlon, the Chicago Marathon and traveled to work on endurance events in Switzerland and Hawaii.  I graduated from Loyola University, major in radio/tv/film and worked for the Chicago Bulls for a short period, always working in race management.  I started my event management company 20 years ago and founded the Chicago Half Marathon which was the first 13.1 mile race in the city, filling a void for that great middle distance event. I produced golf outings, galas and annual meetings but mainly focused on being part of managing large outdoor events like the Twin City-Chicago AIDs Ride, the Avon 3 Day Breast Cancer Walk, etc.  I was also fortunate to work with the Mayor's Office of Special Events for many years producing events including Mayor's Cup Soccer Tournament, Mayor Daley's Holiday Sports Fest and the Halloween events the city hosted.  I also managed the Maxwell Street Market for several years.  Eight years ago, I began working with Special Olympics Chicago with a focus to raise awareness and to increase the overall profile of the charity through fundraising events.  My youngest sister participated in Special Olympics so I had a personal connection and have enjoyed every minute working with a great board of directors and volunteers.  Every day is truly a pleasure! 

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  • Great read! Susan Nicholl is wonderful. Love all the work she does.

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