Taking A Plunge For A Good Cause

On Jan. 24, 2004, Sandy Point State Park will look much like a typical July day at the beach, complete with crowds in bathing suits, families, games, music, food, and swimmers splashing, giggling and shrieking. The difference: water temperature will be in the 30s and, even for the strongest-willed person, the swimming will last no more than five minutes. Welcome to the 8th annual Polar Bear Plunge, one in a series of three icy dips in the winter water series of the Maryland State Police (MSP) to benefit Special Olympics of Maryland (SOMD).

Billed as a day of "unbearable fun" and "an invigorating way to show your support for the 10,000 athletes who train and compete in Special Olympics Maryland throughout the year," last year's event drew a record 2,122 plungers and raised an amazing $442,000. Even Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. showed his support for the organization by braving the frigid Chesapeake Bay waters and setting a goal of 3,000 plungers and $500,000 for 2004. According to Ken Brannan, SOMD board member and perennial plunger, "Gov. Ehrlich's participation gives everyone an extra measure of enthusiasm. It is very clear that he has made a commitment of support."

Judging from the enthusiasm of participants, it may not be too hard to meet that new goal. In seven years, the event has grown from 40 plungers to more than 2,000. It appears that people plunge for two general reasons: the novelty and the commitment to Special Olympics. Mike Raab, will soon take part in the event for the sixth time. "Selfishly, I do it to climatize for the winter. I compare everything to that, and it's not cold," says Raab. "There are a lot of people out there doing something ridiculous for a good cause."

Annapolis native and federal law enforcement agency employee Nancy Cohen considers herself a "crazy Polar Bear Plunge addict." She has participated in Special Olympics events including the annual D.C. torch run which kicks off the summer Special Olympics games, but she says "this was by far the coolest." She, along with three-time plunger Alan Wycherley, convinced her sister Ilene Caroom to take the plunge last year. "Ilene and I laughed from the time we made our approach 'til way after we were dressed and warm again," Cohen says.

Caroom needed a bit more convincing than her sister. Her intrigue began years ago after seeing a write-up on the event in the paper and thinking "those people are sick. The next year I found myself reading with perverse fascination," she says. "The third year, I wondered if it's all that bad. At that point, it was inevitable---morbid fascination won out and there I was, running into the darned Bay."

Wycherley does the plunge for the novelty, but quickly adds, "It's a fun activity to do in the dreary days of January and for a good cause. There's a tremendous mix of people, and I certainly admire the few brave souls who run and jump in totally."

One of those brave souls is Capt. Carl Lee, assistant commander of the Maryland State Police Aviation Division. He swims out to the "diver's ring"---which is about neck deep---and back. He is inspired to make this extra effort in part by his colleagues who all agreed to donate only if he swam out to the ring. But ultimately, Capt. Lee is driven by seeing what Special Olympics has done for kids. His son Jake, who passed away in 2000, was a Special Olympics athlete who won a blue ribbon in swimming. "It's a great program. It instills a lot of confidence in kids and educates the public," says Capt. Lee. "It makes us aware of what we have and how to get the most out of it. It teaches us to be thankful for what we have."

Ed and Eva Tucholski and their three children are a Navy family recently stationed in Annapolis. They all have volunteered extensively with Special Olympics in each of the places they have lived and have found the organization invaluable for their 18-year-old son Dan, a Special Olympics athlete. He's been involved with Special Olympics since he was six years old and now participates in soccer, golf, floor hockey, basketball, swimming, horseback riding, softball and track and field depending upon the season. This will be their first winter in Annapolis and odds are they'll be participating.

Ken Brannan has worked with people with developmental disabilities for many years and has turned that involvement into a corporate and personal commitment to the community. He, along with about a dozen helpers, provides 300 gallons of coffee and hot chocolate to participants all day long through his food service companies' sponsorship. Brannan and his son Jonathon make sure to get in the water at each event in the winter water series. They consider themselves "splunkers" because they participate in all three events---the St. Mary's Splash in December, the Polar Bear Plunge in January and the Deep Creek Dunk in February.

Brannan describes the reasoning for his sponsorship of the events and jumping into the frigid water like this: "There are very few things that are legal...that are this much fun. I get so much more out of it than I put in."

Regardless of the reasons people do the Polar Bear Plunge, everyone agrees it's a lot of fun and for a good cause. That is what Special Olympics of Maryland and the Maryland State Police were banking on when they launched the event. "Special Olympics across the nation has had great success with this format in terms of taking it from just a crazy event to a successful fundraising event," says Tom Schniedwind, senior vice president for sports marketing at SOMD.

He recalls going before the Maryland State Police leadership to pitch the idea of the Polar Bear Plunge as a signature event for them to endorse. "I told them that we are going to get people to pay $50 to jump in 30-degree water," says Schniedwind. "At first they responded, 'Why can't we do golf or something like that?' But they went for it, and it's grown."

Maj. Greg Shipley, MSP spokesman, says the Polar Bear Plunge and winter water series fit with the state police. "We like to think if there is a tough job to do, troopers get it done. It's become an amazing phenomenonthat this many people will come out in the middle of the winter to jump in the water and bring that much money. It has a significant impact on Special Olympics."

Corporate sponsors are plentiful and companies, clubs as well as individuals raise as much money as possible. There are awards for the top fundraisers. Last year's top money-makers were: Tina Wehner of Harley Davidson of Maryland; Jimmy Myrick, Jr., a Special Olympian who raised $21,000 and Mark Huston of Constellation Energy Group. James Roecker of the Anne Arundel County Police Department collected the most donations among law enforcement officers.

One reason so many more people keep coming is that it is fun. "It's a three-minute event that lasts all day," says Schniedwind. There are games for kids, great food from Outback Steak House, music by WQSR 102.7 Good Time Oldies and a costume contest. New this year is a post-plunge party at Big Bats Café on Kent Island to keep the fun going even longer.

Is the water cold? "It is ridiculously cold. It redefines cold. It's not going into the water, it's the sprint back to the tents. It feels like slow motion," says Bill Benner, senior vice president at 1st Mariner Mortgage, the event's lead sponsor. Benner plunges with his daughters Kristin and Lauren.

"Nothing you can't weather through," says Capt. Lee. He, like many, has developed strategies to soften the shock. He strips down to his bathing suit about five minutes before the start to acclimate. The water doesn't feel as cold that way. One year Lee remembers, "the air was a balmy 60 degrees and the water was 36 degrees. It felt really cold. I'd rather it be cold outside."

Alan Wycherley advises novice plungers to wear some sort of shoes because the sand is very cold and rough on the feet. He also recommends running in early so you are not stuck in the crowd trying to get out.

Follow your curiosity, give in to your intrigue, listen to all the advice, get out your wallet and take the plunge. Who knows, you might soon be a "crazy Polar Bear Plunge" addict like Nancy Cohen or a "splunker" like Ken and Jonathon Brannan.

For more information about the Polar Bear Plunge which is at 2 p.m. on Jan. 24, Sandy Point State Park in Annapolis or any of the winter water series, visit www.somd.org.

When Sue duPont is not at work at the Maryland Department of Agriculture, she can often be found jogging through Annapolis, paddling a kayak or spoiling her feline children.


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