Stories of Champions – Celebrating Special Olympics Minnesota’s 50th Anniversary

If you’ve been to a Polar Plunge or a Special Olympics Minnesota competition, there’s a pretty good chance that you’ve seen a familiar face from the local news. Ian Leonard, Chief Meteorologist for FOX 9, has been involved with Special Olympics for the greater part of his career, and has supported the mission in Minnesota for over 15 years. 

Growing up, Ian had a best friend whose younger brother had autism and was involved with Special Olympics. It wasn’t until Ian had a platform on network television in Canada in the 90s that his friend’s family reached out and asked if he would help host a fundraiser for Special Olympics.

He hadn’t done anything like that before, but at that fundraiser Ian fell in love with the mission. Shortly after, he attended the Alberta Special Olympics Summer Games and knew he would be a lifelong supporter of the organization.

“Getting involved with Special Olympics is the greatest thing I’ll do my whole life,” said Ian. “There isn’t anything I would rather do than spend a day with Special Olympics athletes. It just makes life better.”

After the fundraiser, Ian became an official spokesperson for Special Olympics Alberta, and when he relocated to the Twin Cities, he reached out to Special Olympics Minnesota to see how he could get involved.

Next thing he knew, he was jumping into a frozen lake at the White Bear Lake Polar Plunge.

Now, Ian is a staple at Polar Plunge events across the metro area, having Plunged over 400 times in the last 15 years.

This year alone, Ian has brought the FOX 9 camera crew to the Plunge just about every weekend, amplifying the mission of Special Olympics Minnesota, celebrating our 50th anniversary and jumping in the water multiple times with other supporters. His Plunge team, the “Frozen Ice Holes” raised nearly $160,000 and were the first to brave the icy waters of Lake Nokomis at the 2023 Minneapolis Polar Plunge.

In addition to getting involved with the Polar Plunge, Ian has attended countless Special Olympics Minnesota practices and competitions over the years, making lifelong friendships with athletes, volunteers and staff. Every year, he hosts the Bad Pants Open—an annual golf fundraiser for Special Olympics Minnesota—and regularly emcees events and competitions.

When he’s not volunteering at events, Ian uses his platform to spread the mission of Special Olympics Minnesota and amplify the voices of athletes and supporters.

“It’s hard to be invisible in my job, but I try my best to take that big spotlight of the media and turn it and focus it on the Special Olympics athletes in our community,” says Leonard. “They deserve the spotlight far more than I do.”

Whether he’s telling a story about Special Olympics Minnesota during the weather forecast or broadcasting live from a Polar Plunge, being able to use his platform to influence others to do good is something he loves about his job.

“I get all the publicity I need on the news,” says Leonard. “But being able to share that spotlight and amplify inclusion? It’s the best part of my job and my involvement with Special Olympics.”

When asked what he would like to see in the next 50 years of Special Olympics Minnesota, Ian said he wants people to see Special Olympics as an organization for everyone, regardless of background, interests or abilities.

“There is a place for everyone in this community. You don’t need to be into sports. Special Olympics is not just about being an athlete, it’s about being a member of an incredible, inclusive community,” says Leonard. “If people look around and realize that our world is so much better with Special Olympics in it, they’ll want to get involved.”

He believes that volunteering at an event is the best way for anyone to begin.

“Volunteers make the world go round, and that’s especially true for Special Olympics. I’m so proud to be involved with this volunteer-driven movement.”

Ian believes the future is bright for Special Olympics Minnesota, especially when it comes to who will be leading the organization into the future.

“The next generation is kinder and gentler, and they will help make this inclusion movement even more powerful.” says Ian. “For me, inclusion has always been about looking across the room and not seeing anybody who’s different than me. I truly think we’re getting closer and closer. I feel it.”

“I’m confident that when I’m old and retired, people with intellectual and physical disabilities are going to be fully accepted in their communities. They’ll be treated as equals, and they will be seen for their abilities, their skills, their beautiful personalities.”

As Special Olympics Minnesota celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2023, Ian hopes that more people will join the movement, and in turn make Minnesota a better place for everyone.

“I’m involved with Special Olympics Minnesota because I want to be,” says Leonard. “My wife believes in the mission. My children believe in it. If we can get more and more people on board the world will be a better place, I’m sure of it.”

Ian Leonard is a champion of inclusion. He has amplified our athletes’ voices and spread our mission in incredible ways, and we’re so thankful that he continues to come back to our community year after year, Plunge after Plunge.