It's so brrrrefreshing

Charity: About 1,800 hardy souls participated in the sixth annual Polar Bear Plunge to raise money for Special Olympics Maryland.

January 27, 2002|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

The weather wasn't exactly polar this year, but even so, the Chesapeake Bay didn't feel like bath water yesterday during the sixth annual Maryland State Police Polar Bear Plunge.

With a high temperature of 58 degrees and sunny skies to warm them, about 1,800 people dressed in everything from winter coats to bikinis -- one person dressed as Santa Claus -- stood on the shore at Sandy Point State Park near Annapolis awaiting the cue to wade in.

The springlike weather drew hundreds of spectators and helped push the amount of money the plunge raised this year for Special Olympics Maryland to $401,000, bringing the total since 1997 to more than $1 million.

Some plungers, such as a group of six United Auto Workers who dubbed themselves "the Terps fans," seemed oblivious to the impending chill of the 38-degree water.

Each man had painted a red letter on his bare chest, and they frequently arranged themselves to spell "TERPS!" (Matt Gorsuch of Fairplay was the exclamation point) for photographs.

During the half-hour before the plunge, the men trotted around the beach shouting Terps cheers and dismissing the weather. "This is nothing. It's too warm," said Harry Meyers of Williamsport. "I've been colder than this when I was at the beach in July."

Others, such as Lester Watson, an employee at Graul's Market, a co-sponsor of the event, focused on warm thoughts before taking the plunge.

Clad in an American flag Speedo, USA bathing cap, socks and shoes, a shivering Watson kept his arms crossed while on shore and tried to convince himself that the water would be warm.

"Since it's 38 degrees, I know it's not freezing," he reasoned. "I put my finger in the water, and it felt warm to me."

"Warm" being a state of mind, of course.

Although the water was chilly and the wind was enough to give the scantily clad a healthy coat of goose bumps, yesterday's was the warmest plunge since the event began.

During the truly polar plunge in 2000, the air temperature was a blustery 26 degrees and the bay was right at the freezing point.

"That was the year we had to swim through slush," said State Police Superintendent Col. David B. Mitchell.

When the water temperature is in the 30s, it becomes almost irrelevant, Mitchell said. "It only hurts for a second anyway. Then you go numb."

Notables of law enforcement

Mitchell has been plunging with Ben Collins, a 27-year-old Special Olympian, since the event's inception. Collins, who is blind, holds Mitchell's hand as they walk down to the water to take the first plunge.

"Ben thought it would be cute to pull me under the first year we did it," Mitchell said. The water was 35 degrees that year.

Other esteemed plungers included Ravens defensive end Michael McCrary, who abstained last year to play in the Super Bowl (fellow plungers forgave him), Terps football coach Ralph Friedgen and numerous police chiefs.

"This is like a `Who's who' of law enforcement," said Tom Schniedwind, a senior vice president for Special Olympics Maryland.

Making his fourth plunge was Howard County Police Chief Wayne Livesay, who noted that it's better when the air is cold because the water feels warmer.

And they're off

When cued, the masses rushed into the water. The 38-degree reality of the bay took about five seconds to sink in, and when it did, almost everyone charged out shrieking for their towels.

Almost everyone. A handful of polar pros lingered, splashing and playing as though they were in a heated swimming pool.

Cold-water addicts can get another fix Feb. 23 at the Deep Creek Lake Dunk, another Special Olympics fund-raiser held by the Maryland State Police.

The Terps fans, who took fourth place in the costume contest, said they plan to be there -- even if they have to cut through ice to take the plunge.

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