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Maryland State Police Polar Bear Plunge goes virtual in its 25th year

Every January since 1997, law enforcement officers have been jumping into the chilly waters of the Chesapeake Bay as part of the annual Maryland State Police Polar Bear Plunge, a charity event to raise money for Special Olympics Maryland.

The event has become a Maryland tradition, drawing large crowds and significant support from Carroll County, including the Sheriff’s Office, the Westminster Police Department and the MSP Westminster barrack. But now in its 25th year, the event has been forced by the coronavirus pandemic to go virtual.

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In the past, the fundraiser has raised up to half of Special Olympics Maryland’s funds, allowing for many of the athletes to participate in the games without any on cost of their own. But with the event now virtual, Greg Shipley, a lead organizer for the Polar Bear Plunge, said he and fellow organizers worried about the unique challenge they faced and how much money would be raised.

“It was something that had been a concern for months,” Shipley said. “I mean, we just didn’t know how it was going to work out.”

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Stephan Timchula of Westminster takes a selfie as he swim in the third plunge of the day during the Maryland State Police Polar Bear Plunge at Sandy Point State Park on Saturday, Jan. 25. Timchula was representing the Ravens Roost 115 of Westminster which was participating in their 10th plunge.
Stephan Timchula of Westminster takes a selfie as he swim in the third plunge of the day during the Maryland State Police Polar Bear Plunge at Sandy Point State Park on Saturday, Jan. 25. Timchula was representing the Ravens Roost 115 of Westminster which was participating in their 10th plunge. (Brian Krista/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

At first, the Special Olympics team devised a plan to continue an in-person event that would limit the number of attendees. But as the date drew closer, it became clear the event could not continue as it had in the past because of COVID-19.

Ultimately organizers turned to social media to carry the spirit of the event. Participants have been encouraged to post videos of their plunges on various social media sites by tagging @PlungeMd, with some videos being highlighted on the website. By Wednesday afternoon, the event had raised about $1.5 million, approaching their $2 million goal.

“Although we’ll miss the experience of being at Sandy Point State Park and all that brings with it we hope that this will give more people the opportunity to be a part of the plunge in any way that they would like to be,” said Shipley. “You’re not running into the Chesapeake Bay this year, but you can pour water on your head or use water balloons or just jump into a pool in your backyard.”

Shipley who has attended every plunge since 1997 said he still had to jump into cold waters for himself.

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“I didn’t want to miss the 25th year and not be at Sandy Point. So I went down there with Col. Jerry Jones, the superintendent of the Maryland State Police, and he did his punishment and I videotaped it for our Facebook page,” Shipley said.

Bruce Bouch (Captain MSFA) and Director of Public Education and Media Affairs at Maryland office of the state fire marshal, left, and retired firefighter Shawn Chenoweth, both of Westminster, stand on the beach as they wait for the start of the fire and EMS plunge during the 2016 Maryland State Police Polar Bear Plunge at Sandy Point State Park in Annapolis on Friday, Jan. 29.
Bruce Bouch (Captain MSFA) and Director of Public Education and Media Affairs at Maryland office of the state fire marshal, left, and retired firefighter Shawn Chenoweth, both of Westminster, stand on the beach as they wait for the start of the fire and EMS plunge during the 2016 Maryland State Police Polar Bear Plunge at Sandy Point State Park in Annapolis on Friday, Jan. 29. (Brian Krista / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

While the event is still short of the amount raised in previous years, Capt. Brian Smith, commander of the Maryland State Police Education and Training Division, says he is proud of the efforts made by the police academy to continue the tradition. Members of this years academy have raised just under twenty eight thousand dollars, a record for any police academy class.

“When there’s an academy class in session, we always challenge them and take them down to the bay to jump in,” said Smith. “Obviously with COVID that’s changed a bit, but this academy class really took the challenge to heart.”

Smith who has been participating in the plunge since 1998, said members of the academy will do their own plunge some time in February.

To participate in the Polar Bear Plunge, visit plungemd.com.

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