The warm-hearted brave a freezing dip

Fund-raiser: About 1,900 participated in the eighth annual Polar Bear Plunge and raised $500,000 for the Special Olympics of Maryland.

January 25, 2004|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

The good news at yesterday's Polar Bear Plunge was that the tide had pushed the thick ice a little way off shore.

That left just enough open water for nearly 2,000 people, evidently determined to challenge the assumption that human beings are rational, warm-blooded mammals, to dash into the frigid Chesapeake Bay. And then, still screaming, to reverse course and scramble back up the frozen sand, wondering: "Where did I leave my towel?"

The eighth annual plunge at Sandy Point State Park raised $500,000 for the Special Olympics of Maryland, produced a Mardi Gras-quality display of bathing costumes and provided a photo opportunity for Maryland's elected leaders.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. looked out at the scores of state troopers prepared to freeze for charity and declared a statewide moratorium on speeding tickets for the day. Then he recalled the state of Maryland's budget difficulties and thought better of the plan. "We need the cash," he said.

Since last year's event, Ehrlich has not allowed Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele to forget that he failed to follow him into the water.

"The governor has beaten me up mercilessly over the last 10 days," Steele told the crowd, shivering in a gray sweat shirt. He gazed out at the bay as a few snowflakes fell, making no commitment, and added: "All I can say is the icebergs out there are a nice touch."

But when the big moment came, just after 2 p.m., Steele joined his boss for a quick dip in the 28-degree water. The two of them led the mob of 1,909 people into the waves, pushing and splashing each other like a couple of kids as police divers in wetsuits kept vigilant watch.

At 28 degrees, according to the Coast Guard, an unprotected human will die of hypothermia in less than 15 minutes. But most of the dippers, Ehrlich and Steele included, were in and out of the water in about 15 seconds.

"It's the coldest thing I ever felt," 11-year-old Max Schroeder of Millersville, who had raised $500 in pledges for Special Olympics, said after warming up in one of two mammoth heated tents set up for the day. "I couldn't feel my feet for about five minutes."

For three men who called themselves the Flying Pigs -- in defiance of those who said they'd join the winter swim "when pigs fly" -- a single splash was not enough. Special Olympics athlete Jimmy Myrick, 21, and his sidekicks, Special Olympics Vice President Tom Schniedwind, 41, and State Police Maj. Greg Shipley, 46, took their first swim at 3 a.m. and repeated the feat every half-hour before joining the crowd at 2 p.m.

Myrick works at Big Bats Cafe near his Kent Island home, and his restaurant comrades arrived at the heated Flying Pigs tent at 2 a.m. with chicken wings and crab soup. He also competes in Special Olympics basketball, swimming and cheerleading. Participating in the athletic event has been an invaluable experience for Jimmy, his father, Jim Myrick, said.

"It's helped Jimmy interact with his peers," said Jim Myrick, who is chairman of the board of Special Olympics of Maryland. "It's helped him grow and become more mature."

Founded in 1970, the state's Special Olympics organization sponsors events that draw 10,000 developmentally disabled athletes a year, charity officials said yesterday. They compete in 24 sports.

While the offbeat challenge of braving icy bay waters is a draw, most plungers said yesterday that they abandoned their cozy homes to support the Special Olympics cause.

That was true of Jim Emery, of Fairfax, Va., who comes each year with his motorcycle club, the Kena Shriners. Yesterday, for the fourth year running, he was the last swimmer out of the water.

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