Colorful Characters Take The Polar Plunge

This team of Polar Bear Plungers took on a theme of Toy Story for this year’s plunge. (Photo by Bob Vosseller)

  SEASIDE HEIGHTS – The temperature hasn’t been too low most days but some real winter weather returned just in time for this year’s Polar Bear Plunge based on the borough beach and boardwalk.

  The reason for freezing is to support Special Olympics New Jersey and there were thousands of participants doing just that. Some wore costumes featuring special themes like Toy Story. The Ocean County Sheriff’s Office team that suited up in superhero attire from DC and Marvel Comics and even a few made up heroes.

  Ocean County Sheriff Michael Mastronardy said, “it was a successful event again. They do a fantastic job and we thank all of the law enforcement and their supporters for this wonderful event.”

Members of the Ocean County Sheriff’s Office Polar Bear Plunge New Jersey team looked pretty heroic. (Photo by Bob Vosseller)

  Other plungers simply wore bathing suits as they hit the surf at 1 p.m. Regardless of what they wore, their mission was to raise money for a good cause. The event returned last year after having suffered a shortfall in 2021 when the event went virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

  The Polar Bear Plunge presented by New Jersey Law Enforcement is part of a year-round fundraising effort of Law Enforcement Torch Run events and provides a unique opportunity for individuals, organizations, and businesses to support Special Olympics New Jersey athletes by jumping into the chilly Atlantic Ocean each February.

  Special Olympics New Jersey spokesperson Jeremy Davis said “right now the air temperature is 32 and the water temperature is 43 so the water is warmer than the air. Everyone is in a great mood and we are on pace to beat our highest fundraising total ever.”

  “We are over a little over $2.5 million now and we have 7,500 plungers now, so we may have about 7,600. It is a great day,” he added.

  Eighty-two cents of each dollar raised goes directly to those programs for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. The effort more than reached its $2 million plus fundraising goal. Tens of thousands of spectators were there to cheer on the plungers, hold towels and provide moral support as well as applaud their ability to endure cold water and a chilly breeze for a good cause.

Brian Smith, left, a former Toms River resident joins Brandon Gunnigle and his dad Brian standing behind him as part of the Ice Slayers team that have plunged for more than a decade in the Polar Bear Plunge in Seaside Heights. (Photo by Bob Vosseller)

  One person who didn’t freeze but had past plunge experience was Joe Sarnoski, a retired police captain from Lyndhurst who has been supporting the Special Olympics since 1996. He once again donned the white furred costume and full head mask as the event’s mascot, and cheered people on as the official event polar bear.

  “We appreciated everyone’s support,” Sarnoski told Jersey He was a plunger first and “when I started helping the Special Olympics, my wife made me a polar bear outfit. I’ve been the mascot since 1999.”

  This year he once again posed with countless individuals including former Toms River resident Brian Smith who was celebrating his 10th year as a plunger with his fellow EMT teammates from the Ice Slayers.

  Smith made a special belt featuring the Polar Bear Plunge logo as the buckle. “We used to plunge with a special Polar Bear Plunge plunger but we upgraded this year because I raised over  $1,100 last year. Every time we have a momentous occasion we upgrade.”

  “There are seven of us this year. We have Brandon (Gunnigle) and his dad Brian with us and he participates in the Special Olympics. We’ve been doing it for him in the last couple of years but this is his first year doing it,” Smith added.

  As for preparation, Smith could only advise, “take a really hot shower in the morning and pray for no snow.” There were, however, a few flurries seen in the air just moments after the plungers began entering the surf.

The team Polar Pride assembles. They have been plunging in the annual Polar Bear Plunge in Seaside Heights for over a decade now. (Photo by Bob Vosseller)

  Diana MacKenzie is another veteran plunger. She works as Director of Curriculum and Instruction at the Sung Star Academy and members of her staff plunged with her this year. She said “we started our team Polar Pride in 2010 when I was the principal of the Waretown Elementary School. This was our 14th plunge.”

  “We started with four members and through the years we have grown in numbers. This year the team had 13 plungers which is our biggest group thus far,” she added.

  MacKenzie said “we became involved because in 2009 my son plunged and we thought it was a great cause and decided to get a team together. The greatest feeling is knowing how many student athletes we are helping. You can imagine how happy we were to learn that one of our former students from Waretown became a Special Olympian at the USA Summer Games in 2018.”

  “He competed at the University of Washington in July 2018 with 4,000 other athletes and brought home four gold medals in swimming. When people ask why we plunge, we respond by saying ‘For our students like Gabriel S.’”

  MacKenzie said during each plunge “the energy on the beach and on the boardwalk is motivating and inspiring.  I know many people do it for fun, but I can honestly say we do it for the kids. Since this event is sponsored by the NJ State PBA and law enforcement, I always dedicate my plunge to Officer Jason Marles from Ocean Gate Police Department.”

A Polar Bear Plunge tradition returned with Joe Sarnoski, a retired police captain from Lyndhurst, once again became the event’s mascot and cheered people on as the official polar bear. (Photo by Bob Vosseller)

  Marles was killed by a drunk driver on Thanksgiving morning. “I have been friends with his mother and uncle since we were in high school. He left behind two young children,” she said.

  Including the $9,100 the team raised this year, “we have donated over $65,000 to Special Olympics New Jersey in total,” MacKenzie said.