Plungefest 2011

A Polar Bear Plunger races out of the cold water as others race in during the one o'clock plunge into the Chesapeake Bay. (Baltimore Sun photo by Kenneth K. Lam / January 29, 2011)

Patricia Cabezas was downright giddy as she peered out at the Chesapeake Bay getting herself pumped to take a dip in the icy water. But something was missing — it wasn't snowing.

Last year, she took part in her first Polar Bear Plunge, the hugely popular event at Sandy Point State Park where the daring and the wacky willingly bound into the frigid bay to raise money for Special Olympics Maryland. It snowed so hard that doctors cut the event short, saying conditions were too dangerous for even the boldest of swimmers. But Cabezas was unfazed.

"It was amazing," Cabezas, a Los Angeles native who had never seen snow before that day. "I was throwing snow balls and making snow angels in my bathing suit."

While this year's Polar Bear Plunge was mild in comparison — overcast and 33 degrees inside the water and out — Cabezas and her team of 18 people, all colleagues in the corporate offices of Panda Express, were just as enthusiastic. Like last year, the office mates flew from Los Angeles for the event.

"Where's my towel? Where's my towel," screamed Chi Phan, as he scurried across the snow-covered beach to meet up with his team. "I'm numb, but it was great. It was so great, I went in twice."

The annual plunge, in its 15th year, has become a wild success, with a carnival-style atmosphere that this year attracted an estimated 25,000 visitors — 12,000 of whom swam — and raised $3 million for the Special Olympics.

This year, alcohol was banned in an effort to make the event more family-friendly and safe. Last year's combination of extreme weather and alcohol-infused tailgating made for a surge in medical calls, said Kelly Schniedwind, a spokeswoman for Special Olympics Maryland. There were no serious injuries, but some people were treated for weather-related health problems, she said.

"I'd say 85 percent of those calls were due to people who didn't have their wits about them staying out in the cold for too long," she said. "It was never our intent to make this a wild party atmosphere. This year, we have really tried to make it a family event."

With that in mind, organizers tried to offer something for everyone with six entertainment zones, with crafters, food venders, snowboarders, kids' games and a spa tent offering paraffin wax treatments and massages. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco made his annual plunge, and among the new celeb appearances was Pauly D, the DJ from the MTV reality show "Jersey Shore" who spent the afternoon spinning hip-hop hits in a tent jam-packed with fist-pumping tweens.

"I love him," said Lauren Kitzmiller, a 22-year-old student at the University of Maryland College Park. "I'm totally excited about this. I mean, I am here for Special Olympics and committed to the plunge. But it's fun to hang out too."

No plunge would be complete without an array of silly costumes, from Darth Vader to a teenage mariachi band clad in sombreros doing the limbo on the snow-covered beach.

Moments before the 1 p.m. plunge, the beach was covered in a frenzy of screaming, singing, freezing swimmers. A Baltimore City police academy team did jumping jacks, and a group of teenage girls wrapped themselves in feathered boas. Jack Beckwith, an Annapolis firefighter, was a vision of calm, wearing nothing but swim trunks, a firefighter helmet and mirrored sunglasses.

"I'm good; I'm ready," he said. His fellow firefighters — a group of five who raised $1,000 for the event — were less enthusiastic.

"I'm a chicken," said Tommy Terry, bouncing up and down to keep warm.

"I'm a firefighter, I like it hot. When I woke up this morning, I nearly started crying," he said jokingly. "I had to get one of the rookies to start the car, it was too cold."

Plenty of participants were veteran plungers who said this year's weather made the water downright delightful.

"It's totally fine, it's a walk in the park compared to last year," said Colleen Dunn, whose group of 11 colleagues from a Hunt Valley insurance company called themselves "the plunging coconuts," each wearing a coconut shell bra, grass skirt and leis. They raised $6,000 for the cause. "I still can't feel my feet, but that's OK."

kelly.brewington@baltsun.com

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