Taking plunge for good cause

Annual state police Polar Bear event entices thousands to get icy for Special Olympics

January 28, 2007|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,Sun Reporter

Halloween might as well move to January.

Along the shore of the Chesapeake Bay at Sandy Point State Park yesterday, Superman and Batman posed for a picture. Little Bo Peep pranced around in fishnet stockings. Ariel from The Little Mermaid was nearby in a purple shell bra, a red wig and a fish bottom.

And of course, there was The King.

As the popularity of the Maryland State Police Polar Bear Plunge has increased, the atmosphere surrounding the daylong event has taken on a life of its own.

"It's always been a very festive event," said Kelley Wallace Schniedwind, a spokeswoman for Special Olympics Maryland and organizer of the plunge. "But as it has grown, as you can see, it's become more colorful."

And the results are growing, too.

In its 11th year, the plunge set records with more than 7,000 participants and $2 million raised for Special Olympics Maryland, nearly double the numbers from a year ago. Plungers had to raise at least $50 each for the chance to rush the Chesapeake Bay water.

Amid sunshine and temperatures near 50 degrees, 15,000 people flooded the park. Former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. made his usual appearance, standing with Ravens defensive coach Rex Ryan and former star player Michael McCrary as this year's celebrity plungers.

They were dressed in standard swimwear. Others were not.

One young man dressed like a professional wrestler - employing women's spandex and underwear, and a mask - at the urging of his co-workers.

"They told me they wanted some pictures of me doing something stupid," said Dave Tasker, a 23-year-old employee of AMG Management.

A couple of plungers dressed as Borat Sagdiyev, the main character in the recent hit movie, witnessed a scene that had to be a far cry from anything that happens in Kazakhstan.

And Elvis hit the water twice and managed to keep his black wig and sunglasses intact both times.

"I got in the water, and I was all shook up," said Elvis, aka Jonah Baker, 35, a real estate appraiser by day.

The good news for Baker? His black full-length polyester suit made for a quick dry. Only minutes after plunging, Baker was able to pose for pictures with adoring fans. The King, Baker proclaims to the masses, is alive and well.

"I own this outfit," Baker said. "I've been known to dress in it on occasion."

Although the run into the water was not to take place until 2 p.m., a mini-mutiny took place about 10 minutes before. As the announcer blared instructions over the loudspeaker, some plungers could not contain themselves. Matt Layman was among them.

The 25-year-old Dundalk resident and a group of friends went in twice. They even had a little wager.

"We had $20 on who could last the longest," said Layman, dripping wet. "I think I won by like 3 seconds."

The plunge began in 1997 on the same beach with 78 people, many of whom were state troopers. With the addition of corporate sponsors, police and fire departments, and members of Ravens Roost and Nest organizations, the event has now become the beach social of the winter.

Cars, shuttle buses and recreational vehicles filled the lots around the park, lining up before the gates opened in the morning. Members of Ravens Nests from around Maryland fired up grills, barbecuing hot dogs and burgers while downing cold beverages as if a game were imminent.

"We have a blast, and it keeps us together in the offseason," said Steve Ritchie, vice president of Ravens Nest No 10. Wearing a No. 86 Todd Heap jersey, Ritchie says his organization brought about 15 plungers.

Nest No. 10 has been participating for five years, two fewer than the unofficial streak of one veteran plunger.

As has been his tradition, Jim Emery, 53, of Arlington, Va., again was the first in and last out for what he claims is the seventh straight year. Emery says once he saw people inching toward the water 10 minutes before plunge time yesterday, he made his move.

Others around him jumped out seconds after diving in, but Emery withstood the 37-degree water for nearly 35 minutes.

Emery says he is moving to Oregon in July but will come back next year to defend his title.

"This is just something I'm good at," Emery said. "I'll be here next year, for sure."

brent.jones@baltsun.com

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