Thousands hit the water for 22nd annual Polar Bear Plunge

With the temperature in the 50s and a brilliant sun shining on the Chesapeake Bay, conditions were as balmy as they’ve ever been for the Maryland State Police Polar Bear Plunge at Sandy Point Park on Saturday.

But someone forgot to tell Ava Poole and Ruby Shoots.

The Crofton seventh-graders shivered in an icy wind that blew across the water as they waited for the “go” signal for a midday plunge. When the horn sounded, they charged in with thousands of others.

Half a minute later they were out again, shaking water from their hair and screaming.

“I couldn’t feel my body!” Ava cried, eyes watering.

“I couldn’t feel a thing!” Ruby replied.

And they had finished their part of the 22nd version of a Maryland tradition.

Every year but one since 1997, thousands of hardy — some would say foolhardy — souls have gathered on the beach in the Annapolis park one weekend in winter to storm into the frigid Chesapeake.

Few stay in for long, but all have committed themselves to a good cause.

Every man, woman and child who takes part in the plunge raises money for Special Olympics Maryland, the nonprofit organization that stages athletic events year-round for thousands of differently-abled athletes.

The event takes place over the course of a week, with several smaller plunges scheduled prior to Saturday’s blowout plunge, a splashfest that usually draws about 6,000 people.

Participants enter any of the plunges as individuals or members of teams, but nearly everyone must raise or donate at least $75 to enter.

The events have raised about $35 million to support Special Olympics Maryland, which makes meets and competitions in 27 sports available to registered athletes free of charge, said Jason Schriml, a spokesman for the organization, amid what he called the “mass of humanity” Saturday.

More than 10,000 people took part in this week’s series of plunges, Schriml said, easily surpassing last year’s total, when the weather was considerably chillier.

More than 3,800 answered the call during the “Cool Schools” event on Thursday, when students from 73 schools across Maryland dove in and raised about $375,000.

More than 1,800 took part in corporate and police plunges on Friday, and as of late Saturday afternoon, 4,722 people had taken part in one of the three plunges offered that day, including the main one at 1 p.m.

Those numbers put organizers well within reach of attaining their goal of raising $2.5 million for the week.

Schriml said they’d already netted $2.3 million by 2 p.m. Saturday, and that didn’t count walkups for the day or those who were already limbering up to take the last dip, a 3 p.m. plunge that usually draws about 800 people.

“I think this all shows that Marylanders are very generous in spirit, in their willingness to get behind a good cause, especially if it’s combined with the ability to get out and have a good time,” Schriml said.

The unusually warm weather did little to soften the blow of jumping into the bay, whose temperature was about 35 degrees at midday, but it was more than enough to draw an exceptionally party-happy throng.

Hundreds of guests packed a beachside tent to hear live music. Costumes ranged from Darth Vader and My Little Pony attire to skimpy bikinis for a group of boisterous, if less than svelte, middle-aged men.

Clowns staggered on stilts through the throngs of people, R&B music pulsed through gigantic speakers, hundreds lined up for cheesesteaks, funnel cake and beer, and as news helicopters buzzed overhead, the Ravens Marching Band pumped out Sousa-like tunes as the plungers emerged from the waves, teeth chattering.

David Dickerson, 46, wore a soaking-wet red-and-white striped rugby jersey as he gasped for air on his way to a heated tent.

Dickerson, of Fairfax, Va., is president of West Potomac Rugby, a nonprofit that stages rough-and-tumble Saturday afternoon matches at Gravelly Point Park in Arlington.

It was the club’s fifth straight year sending a team to the plunge, the third for Dickerson.

He thought he’d be impressed with the weather Saturday, but once he’d been in the bay, he changed his mind.

The air temperature was so much lower last year, he said, that when he got out, he barely noticed the difference, but this year the contrast between cold water and temperate air was a shock.

“Actually, I feel like going back in,” he said.

The team of seven raised $2,300 Saturday, boosting the club’s total contributions above the $5,000 mark.

This was team member Bill Evans’ fifth year.

“It’s a privilege for us to be able to go out there and bash into each other on Saturdays, and it feels good to be able to help others go out and engage in sports as well,” Evans said.

It was Ruby’s idea to get some friends interested in taking the plunge this year, and she and Ava, both students at Crofton Middle School, raised nearly $300 between them, mostly by sending out pleas on social media.

Ruby’s mother, Lora Shoots, said the project had piqued the girls’ interest in volunteering with the Special Olympics, and she hoped they’d follow through.

After coming out of the water, though, they didn’t have time to discuss the future.

“It’s freezing!” they cried, wrapping themselves in towels and racing off toward a heated tent.

jonpitts@baltsun.com

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