By Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun
7:37 PM EST, January 28, 2012
A man dressed in a head-to-toe Dalmatian suit, complete with fireman's hat and boots. A shirtless middle-aged fellow in swim trunks, with a lime-green fedora on his head, gyrating to the beat of rock music. A dozen young women hula-hooping in the winter sun.
As three Maryland state flags whipped in a cold wind beside the beach, tens of thousands of people of different backgrounds and sartorial tastes flooded the shores at Sandy Point State Park yesterday, readying themselves for three mad sprints into the icy Chesapeake Bay for the 16th annual Polar Bear Plunge.
Sponsored by the Maryland State Police, the event, which raises money for Special Olympics Maryland, drew 14,500 plungers and raised $2.5 million over the weekend — both records, according to Special Olympics spokeswoman Kelley Schniedwind.
"The temperatures [in the 50s] probably had a lot to do with it. I'm sure a few people woke up this morning, looked out the window and said, 'Hey, let's go out to the park,'" said Schniedwind, adding that the total crowd size was closer to 24,000, including those who came to watch.
The figures bring the total of plungers to more than 82,000 since 1997, and the total amount of money generated to $21.6 million.
"We're here to go all the way in, up to our necks," said Alyssa Kendall, 13, an eighth-grader from Chestertown who was making the leap for the first time.
Like the 14 friends she brought with her, Alyssa was wearing oversized horn-rimmed glasses and a T-shirt that read "The Nerd Herd," a joking reference to the friends' reputation for doing well in their studies at King County Middle School.
"I tell jokes my mom doesn't understand, and she says, 'You're such a nerd!'" Alyssa said. "The name was her idea."
They were smart enough to know that, with the air temperature hovering in the 50s, the plunge would be less arctic than usual. "If it weren't for this wind, this would be a nice day," Alyssa said.
But for many, with the wind gusting, it felt nearly as icy as it has in recent years, when plungers have had to brave conditions more typical of a Maryland winter.
As the 1 p.m. plunge approached, the crowd on the beach thickened, the buzz grew louder, and three guys in furry viking hats complete with horns shivered as they stripped down to their shorts.
Kevin Wu, 23; Rob McCutcheon, 24; and Patrick Monacelli, 23, are in the habit of entering bike marathons and 5K mud runs together every few weeks. They saw the plunge as an opportunity for one more adventure, but as they prepared to hit the water, they seemed skeptical about this one.
"It's our first time doing this — and maybe our last," joked McCutcheon, his torso visibly reddening in the wind. They warmed themselves by jumping in place.
At 12:55, whoops and hollers filled the air. A group of young men raised toilet plungers as though they were swords. A teacher exhorted his middle-school students, and an emcee bellowed safety instructions over a loudspeaker.
"Wear as little as possible. A sweat shirt will freeze. Skin dries in a matter of seconds," he said.
A countdown began, a din of screaming rose, and the first wave of plungers splashed in.
Some waded in up to their ankles. A few went waist-deep. One guy in a wetsuit did the funky chicken. And most came out more quickly than they'd gone in.
"Great plunge, girls!" a woman cried to two teenagers, clutching their hands as they all ran out. Many were shrieking.
Fresh from the water, Casey Gebhart, 20, stood with her sister Jaclyn, 13, as well as Anastasia Handwerk, 20, and Donna Delawder, 50, two colleagues from the Mt. Carmel Animal Hospital in Monkton.
All were dressed in bathing suits more meteorologically appropriate for the middle of summer.
"That knocks the air right out of you!" said Casey, her long hair drenched. "The good thing is, I'm too numb to know how numb I am."
"You have to force yourself not to think, or you'll never go in," Handwerk added. "I tried to stand up and I couldn't breathe."
Delawder, 50, said Casey had goaded her into coming by telling her she needed a new adventure. Even though she couldn't feel her feet, she saw any momentary discomfort as a trivial thing.
"Everyone at work got involved and sponsored me for this," the vet tech said. "It feels so good to contribute to a cause as wonderful as this."
Would the four do it again? Not today, they vehemently said, but next year, yes, no matter how cold it gets.
That might make for an even more interesting challenge.
"I'd like to be able to say I did this in the snow," Casey said.
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