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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.