Super plungers brave the frigid waters to kick off Polar Bear events

The air temperature was 14 degrees and the water was 30 degrees, so if state Sen. Allan Kittleman of Howard County had opted to simply plant a toe or two in the Chesapeake Bay on Friday morning, who could have blamed him?

Instead, he immersed himself completely, making the most of his part in the 18th annual Maryland State Police Polar Bear Plunge, a fundraiser for Special Olympics Maryland at Sandy Point State Park in Annapolis.

"You've got to plunge. It woke me up," said Kittleman, taking the second of what was to be a plunge every hour for 24 hours, placing him among 50 hearty souls in the Super Plunge category.

One plunge per hour? Kristine Eckstein, 28, of Perryville, far exceeded that. The competitive swimmer and veteran plunger said she dashes in and out of the water up to five times an hour as she participates. Last year she tallied 63 plunges overall.

"It is freezing cold, but it is amazing," said Eckstein, who took part with her father. "Once you get in that water, you just want to keep going."

Super Plunge kicked off the Polar Bear Plunge weekend, which continues Saturday with some 6,500 people expected to participate. The event is the largest Special Olympics fundraiser in North America, according to Special Olympics Maryland.

The organization had raised some $1.2 million in pledges as of noon Friday. Last year, the weekend saw about 10,000 participants and raised $2.2 million.

Jim Schmutz, president and CEO of Special Olympics Maryland, said proceeds support the organization's year-round sports competitions and some 600 other events.

Friday, with the Bay Bridge spans in the distance, some plungers entered and quickly retreated; others remained for an extended dip. After each plunge, they returned to a festive atmosphere inside white tents with food and drinks, a costumed stilt walker and a disc jockey spinning country, pop and hip-hop tunes. Around-the-clock medical staff was on hand as well.

Super Plungers were scheduled from 10 a.m. Friday until 9 a.m. Saturday. The day has its ebb and flow, Schmutz said.

"There's a lot of hype out there now, music playing, a lot of excitement, and at midnight it's dark and there's not a lot going on," Schmutz said. Stamina is key for the 24-hour plungers, he said. "Even though you go in and out of the water, it saps energy. The key is to stay hydrated."

Ralph Parks, 55, of Chester was taking part for the sixth year. "The first plunge is the coldest," he said. "Once you get beyond that, it's pretty easy ... until about 2 to 4 in the morning."

Ed Chiolo, 42, of Eldersburg plunged for the second year and said the event is inspirational "just to see the joy it brings to the parents" of Special Olympics athletes.

Gregory Pokrywka, 56 of Owings Mills took part in his fifth Super Plunge, and said the event is tantamount to a mini marathon.

"You need to be in reasonable shape to do this. It's really an endurance, stamina kind of thing," Pokrywka said. "I certainly drink a lot of fluids and I eat more in this 24-hour period than in any 24-hour period of the year."

State police spokesman Greg Shipley has been plunging since the event's inception, and is one of some 400 law enforcement officials participating this year. He said Special Olympics Maryland first asked state police to help launch the event in 1997.

"We held our first event two years later, 350 people showed up and we raised $74,000," Shipley said. "It's just grown every year since."

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