Making an ice-cold splash to raise cash for charity

Ehrlich among swimmers in annual bay plunge

January 26, 2003|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

Because Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is just getting over the flu, Maryland's Comptroller William Donald Schaefer called Maryland's first lady to lobby Ehrlich not to run into the Chesapeake Bay for yesterday's Polar Bear Plunge.

But Ehrlich said he told his wife, Kendel, and Schaefer, a former governor, that he wasn't going to miss the charity event.

"I just reminded him about the time he jumped into a seal tank, and that was pretty much the end of the conversation," Ehrlich said, laughing as he recalled Schaefer's famous swim at the National Aquarium in a red-and-yellow-striped Victorian bathing suit.

Ehrlich wore a more modern suit for yesterday's frigid dip into the bay, a fund-raising event sponsored by the Maryland State Police each January at Sandy Point State Park to benefit Maryland Special Olympics.

"I'm either really stupid or really tough," the governor said. "Really, when you look at the crowd, at the cause, this is really important."

More than 2,200 swimmers paid at least $50 each for the privilege of splashing into the 32-degree water, raising more than $442,000 for the cause.

"This is a much better way to raise money than some stuffy wine-and-cheese event," said Scott McKelvie, a 38-year-old sales director for Cingular Wireless from Westminster.

His brother, Chris McGhay, 30, of Canton, said, "This is one of those things you have to do before you die. It's like skydiving. Only this is colder."

Maryland's state police superintendent-designate, Edward T. Norris, officially started the annual ritual, telling the crowd, "Let's get on in there."

Unlike other shivering participants, Norris and Ehrlich didn't look at all fazed by the chilly conditions. When the governor emerged from the bay, he said, "Cold is a state of mind, just like the [state's] budget deficit."

Ehrlich, who was joined by elected officials including House Speaker Michael E. Busch, had been trying to persuade Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele to jump into the bay with him all week.

He sent an executive order to Steele requesting his participation, but received an executive order back from Steele, who said he'd be glad to provide hot coffee and a dry towel for the governor. "I didn't know a lieutenant governor could issue an executive order," Ehrlich said.

At a meeting with a group of Baltimore lawmakers on Friday, Ehrlich gently chided Steele for not going in with him. "Black folks don't jump in cold water," Steele replied jokingly.

However, as he stood on the beach yesterday, Steele said he admired Ehrlich's resolve. "I support the Special Olympics and our troopers, and I admire the audacity of the people here."

Later, Ehrlich announced Steele would be joining the swimmers at next year's Polar Bear Plunge.

Marlou Vogelsang, 42, and Karen Mehl, 42 -- both from Catonsville -- said they recommended wearing bathing suits, rather than warmer clothes, even with temperatures hovering in the mid- to upper 30s. "Bathing suits are better because they dry faster," said Vogelsang. "But we made the mistake of not wearing shoes. Cold sand is much worse than hot sand."

A throng of shivering young men ran across the beach in swim trunks yelling, "And we're not even in the water yet!"

K.C. Palmer, a 28-year-old elevator installer from Edgewater, said the initial shock from the cold water is the worst part. "It feels like needles," he said.

Palmer has missed only one plunge since the event began in 1997. "It's really fun," he said.

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