The air was crisp. The snow-capped mountains of the Swiss Alps peeked out along the horizon as I creeped up to the edge of the pool. Dressed in Coca-Cola red, with my colleagues on either side, my heart was pounding. We stood before hundreds of people cheering loudly and the blinding flashes of dozens of photographers snapping away.
Over a loud speaker, the countdown began. Five. Four. Three. Two. One.
In I went, the cold shocking my body as my head submerged beneath the surface of the 50-degree water. I bounced back up as quickly as my legs would allow, frozen to the bone, but victorious.
My hands were cold, my nose was cold, my ears were cold, but my heart was warm. I did it. (That's me with the red toboggan.)
How did I get here? Let me back up for a minute.
I’ve been hearing about the The Schladming Splash, Special Olympics' inaugural Unified Polar Plunge, for months now. Special Olympics was hoping to bring together athletes, board members, law enforcement officers, celebrities and sponsors to jump into the cold waters of the Sporthotel Royer to raise funds and awareness for Special Olympics during the 2017 World Winter Games in Austria.
Coca-Cola was the presenting sponsor of the plunge, which is where I fit into this story. I am fortunate enough to lead the global PR efforts for the Coca-Cola Special Olympics team. And although the plunge had come up on numerous calls and in dozens of planning sessions, I had always shrugged it off, thinking to myself, "There is no way I’d ever jump into that water in front of all of those people and let them see me soaking wet, without any makeup (gasp!) and totally vulnerable."
And don’t even mention that the entire plunge would be filmed and captured by dozens of cameras. Literally, one of my worst nightmares.
Superficial, I know. I have a wonderful life. A beautiful family, a fulfilling job and an Instagram stream that tells the story of my happily ever after.
But if you scratch the surface of those beautiful photos posted to my social media accounts, you’ll find a girl who has struggled with depression and low self esteem for most of my young adult and adult years. I’d become an expert at hiding behind a joke and a smile, but deep down struggled with a darkness that had become very difficult to shake.
Enter Special Olympics. Founded in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Special Olympics is the largest international sport movement for people with intellectual disabilities. Proudly, The Coca-Cola Company is the founding partner of the Special Olympics and has been in lock step with the organization’s unwavering commitment to achieve a more inclusive world for the past 49 years.
Thanks to the awesome opportunity I have to work on the Special Olympics, not only have I become fully emerged in the trailblazing vision of Ms. Shriver and the incredible organization she founded, but I was also introduced to two very special young women – two Special Olympics advocates – two beacons of light that helped me out of my darkness.
Bree Bogucki, an 18-year-old singer and track star from Illinois living with Autism, and Madison Tevlin, a 15-year-old YouTube star living with Down Syndrome from Canada, served as Coca-Cola Ambassadors for the 2015 Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles, where they helped create the company’s first Unified Song – and performed in from of 80,000 people on live TV during the Opening Ceremony of the Games.
Since then, these two incredible teenagers have dedicated much of their lives and lent their voices to helping break down barriers that they’ve faced as individuals living with intellectual disabilities.
With the loving support of their families, these brave girls live their lives with purpose, joy, open hearts and infectious attitudes that can’t help but make you want to join in their fight.
As luck would have it, I was able to visit with both Bree and Maddy in the days before I left for the World Winter Games in Austria. As a Global Messenger, Bree visited Coca-Cola HQ in Atlanta to give a moving speech that helped rally the global Coke family as we prepared to celebrate the Winter Games.
Maddy and I caught up over lunch where she shared the awesome video she helped produce in an effort to delete the “R” word from our vocabulary. I left both, as I always do, with a renewed perspective on what is really important, as well as renewed commitment to do more.
Although I couldn’t have Bree and Madison with me at the Winter Games, I was in search of a way to honor our friendship.
Insert the plunge.
Undoubtedly the perfect (albeit cold) way to commemorate the stamp Bree and Madison have left on my heart.
In no way did this plunge take even an ounce of the bravery Madison and Bree show every day, but it was my small way to say thank you. I would have NEVER done this had they not come into my life.
This one was for you, Bree and Madison. May you continue to use your strong, courageous voices to break down every barrier that you face and inspire everyone around you while you do it.
There are no limits to your success.
Kate Hartman Rosenzweig is group director, Global Brand PR, at The Coca-Cola Company.