Featured photo: Sobottka photographing the first Polar Plunge of the 2023 season in White Bear Lake

While some Minnesotans dream of flying south for the winter, photographer Fred Sobottka can’t wait for the freezing temperatures. For the past 10 years, he has volunteered at the Polar Plunge for Special Olympics Minnesota and captured the unique emotions that people experience when jumping into a frigid lake.

“There’s nothing like capturing the Polar Plunges,” says Sobottka. “It’s always so much fun to run around and capture every moment. In the beginning they’re waiting and they’re nervous, right before they jump in they’re more nervous, then they jump and come out of the water and that’s a whole other expression. Each part of the Plunge experience is so different and everyone reacts in a unique way.”

Sobottka started volunteering for Special Olympics Minnesota after he saw a fellow photographer post some images of a Plunge event on Facebook. “I was shooting a lot of sports and it seemed like a unique thing to capture, so I asked if I could be a volunteer,” said Sobottka.

After photographing his first Polar Plunge, he was hooked.

“Everyone involved with Special Olympics seems like the nicest person you’ve ever met. The environment at events is so warm and welcoming, said Sobottka. “I couldn’t get enough.”

What started with one Polar Plunge, turned into Sobottka being a regular fixture at most Special Olympics Minnesota events.

“I started to attend a Plunge every weekend, then I did the Law Enforcement Torch Run events, the Unified Dance Marathon at the Mall of America, Summer Games and even press conferences,” said Sobottka. “I think I’ve shot just about everything Special Olympics Minnesota does at least once.”

His most memorable, and frigid, Polar Plunge experience was at the 2018 Super Bowl in downtown Minneapolis. The temperatures that day were at or below zero and the windchill was around 25 below. According to Sobottka, “the wind was just ripping” in the location between buildings that was set up for the Plunge.

“After the first couple people jumped, I was soaked. My whole front side was wet and the event went on for a couple of hours. That wind was brutal, but it was such a blast that I didn’t want to leave.”

An image of the 2018 Super Bowl Polar Plunge taken with Sobottka’s fisheye lens

While the Super Bowl was Sobottka’s most memorable Polar Plunge, he says each one is special in its own way, mostly thanks to the people who attend. One of his favorite local personalities to capture is Ian Leonard, meteorologist for Fox 9, and a faithful supporter of Special Olympics Minnesota.

“He’s just a stitch,” laughed Sobottka. “He’ll get around 50 friends to dress up with him at the Minneapolis plunge. One year they were all dressed up as Elvis and another year he was dressed up as Paul Bunyan while his friends dressed up as blue oxen. He’s always a blast to photograph.”

Ian Leonard and his friends dressed as Elvis for the Minneapolis Polar Plunge

Sobottka began his professional photography career after retiring from software engineering in October 2019. “Once I retired, I started doing photography 60-80 hours a week,” said Sobottka. “It was something I really enjoyed doing so it didn’t seem like work to me.”

Outside of event photography and volunteering, he captures a wide variety of subjects and settings – graduation pictures, corporate headshots, concerts, nature, weddings and anything in between. “I just like shooting different, sometimes weird stuff. It keeps it fun.” He also admits to having plenty of images of his first granddaughter who was born in April of 2022.

Sobottka and his granddaughter Jojo

Sobottka’s love of photography started early. After his mother died, he was going through old pictures and found one of him holding a browning box camera at the age of four or five. “I vaguely recall that I got it at some sort of an estate sale or flea market,” said Sobottka. “And just seeing that image of me with a camera at such a young age reminded me that I’ve had a love of photography my whole life.”

Beyond capturing beautiful images, Sobottka says his passion for photography comes from the connections he makes at each shoot.

“You meet a lot of people the more things you do, especially through organizations like Special Olympics,” said Sobottka. “Everybody’s in the spirit of giving and it’s great to get together with people to accomplish something special. I’ve made some great friends through events, especially the Polar Plunge.”

One of Sobottka’s favorite Plungers – Michael “Red” Glenna

Fred says the most magical moments to capture happen at Special Olympics Minnesota competitions. “For most athletes, it doesn’t matter if they come in first or if they come in fifth. When they come across that finish line, they’re so happy they finished the event,” said Sobottka. “I love capturing that expression and showing the experiences that Special Olympics offer.”

Fred loves volunteering with Special Olympics Minnesota, and he encourages everyone to offer what they can.

“There are so many different activities that it’s easy to find something you’re interested in. Just try attending one event and you’ll be hooked,” said Sobottka. “It’s not so much what you do, but it’s just being there and cheering people on that matters.”

Fred Sobottka is a champion of inclusion. He has done an incredible job capturing the spirit of Special Olympics Minnesota over the years, and we’re so thankful that he continues to share his time and talents with our community. If you see Fred out at an event or competition, be sure to say hello! 

Interested in volunteering with Special Olympics Minnesota? Check out our upcoming volunteer opportunities or reach out to [email protected] to learn more.