A dip in the Chesapeake Bay may seem like the last thing a person wants to do January, but every year thousands gather at Sandy Point Park in Annapolis in the chill of a winter day, don their bathing suits and take to the water.
It's all part of the Maryland State Police's annual Polar Bear Plunge — now in its 17th year, scheduled for Saturday, Jan. 26 — to raise money for the Special Olympics of Maryland. According to its website, Special Olympics of Maryland is the state's largest year-round organization devoted to sports training and competition for children and adults with intellectual disabilities.
"The event itself is full of positive people and positive energy," said Howard County Police Chief Bill McMahon, who has been taking the plunge since the event began. "It's great."
Many with Howard County ties are participating in this year's plunge, including McMahon and about 10-15 members of the county police department.
"When you think about the job of a police officer — rescuing people, investigating crimes and protecting the community — there's still another way that law enforcement in Howard County can better serve the community, and that's the biggest reason (we attend)," McMahon said.
It's Erica Koenig's third time braving the icy waters with friends. The second-year communications student at Howard Community College said that, rationally, she has no idea why she keeps attending the event.
"It's freezing, but it's an adrenaline rush," said Koenig, 22. "And I know it's for a good cause. I'm doing some good, raising some money. And jumping into freezing water."
A former volunteer at Veterans Elementary School in Ellicott City, Koenig worked with students along the autism spectrum. Over the years, the plunge has become more personal for her.
"(Working with children along the spectrum) gives you a whole different perspective, seeing how these kids deal with so many things, every day," she said.
Ian Reynolds, 41, of Columbia, is taking to the beach for the third year with the team Owen United — named for his six-year-old son, Owen, who has Down Syndrome and alopecia. Reynolds, his wife, Stephanie, and their two older sons, Gavin, 13 and Trevor, 10, all have taken the plunge. So far, Owen has not, Reynolds said, but this may be the year.
Owen United has about 90 members — about half the members are children, Reynolds said — and so far this year team members have raised more than $15,000.
"Just as important as the money we raise is spreading awareness about kids with disabilities, and getting kids to be more civic-minded," Reynolds said. "That's a facet of our team that we're really proud of."
Gavin and Trevor are both athletic boys, Reynolds said, and while there are some "mainstream" events in which Owen can participate, "there's going to come a time that he's really going to need something more catered to his abilities."
Reynolds said Owen, a student at Thunder Hill Elementary, will be eligible for the Special Olympics in two years, and he'll likely run track.
"We see what that kind of participation and inclusion can do for these kids, for them socially and for their confidence levels," Reynolds said.
When he attends Special Olympics events later in the year, McMahon said, "you see how much spirit the athletes have and how excited they are when they're competing. You do see the need for the fundraising."
It's all for a good cause, Koenig said, but it does get cold. Like, really cold: Once, she went completely under water and couldn't breathe when she emerged.
"You're just thinking about survival," she said. "You just keep thinking, am I really going to do this? You have to kick yourself. ... If you listen to all the thoughts in your heard, you're not going to do it."
The atmosphere is so jubilant at the plunge, Reynolds said, he barely notices the cold.
"I don't plan to jump out of an airplane or go bungee-jumping any time soon, so this is my thrill-seeking moment of the year," he said. "I don't even feel the cold when I go in. ... It's such a celebration of life and friends and family."