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Community members brave cold with ‘plunge’ at Fallston fire company for Special Olympics Maryland

With temperatures just below freezing, about half a dozen people plunged into pools of water in Fallston on Saturday to help raise money for Special Olympics Maryland.

“It’s cold, it’s a balmy 31 degrees out here,” Jim Schmutz, president and CEO of Special Olympics Maryland and one of the plungers, said as he welcomed participants and their supporters.

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They gathered in the clear late-morning cold behind the Fallston Volunteer Fire & Ambulance Company’s main firehouse off of Carrs Mill Road.

Two plunge pools had been set up in front of several fire trucks. Participants got in the pools, and some submerged themselves in the frigid water, and then the group was sprayed briefly with a fire hose. Plungers could warm up either in the firehouse or a nearby ambulance.

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Schmutz, in his opening remarks, described the fire company as “unbelievable supporters of the community — they take care of the community, and they’re taking care of us today.”

The Maryland State Police Polar Bear Plunge, which turns 25 years old this year, is typically held in January. Participants, who are raising money for Special Olympics Maryland, gather on the beach at Sandy Point State Park in Anne Arundel County and then rush into the waters of the Chesapeake Bay.

That gathering cannot happen this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but people around the state are encouraged to do their own virtual plunges and record videos of themselves doing so, then submit the video online. People can do a one-time plunge, or a “super plunge,” which involves raising at least $10,000 with 24 plunges over 24 hours.

Those who do virtual plunges are encouraged to post the videos to social media with the tags @PlungeMD, or #PlungeMD. People who do not use social media can send their videos via email to somdcomm@gmail.com, according to the Plunge Maryland website.

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Those who participated in the virtual plunge in Fallston included Special Olympics Maryland officials, Special Olympics athletes and their supporters — Schmutz noted that funds raised Saturday would help support 8,716 athletes.

People can do their virtual plunges through Jan. 31; Schmutz said that “there’s just so many that are going on, it’s terrific.”

Plunger Sharon Perfetti, a Fallston resident who serves as senior director of special events for Special Olympics Maryland, said the water temperature was warmer than the air temperature.

“Once you got out, it was pretty bad — it was pretty cold,” she said.

Special Olympics Athlete Danny Grau, of Fallston, said the cold “had a real bite to it.” Grau has been doing a number of sports through Special Olympics Maryland for about 10 years, including softball, basketball, flag football, snow-shoeing, “during the midst of COVID, all that stuff you can’t do,” he said.

“Having fun, being around friends, making new friends,” he said when asked what he enjoys about Special Olympics sports.

Plunger Stacey Hull, of Bel Air, is an athlete and volunteer with the Special Olympics who helps with fundraising; she also plays soccer and softball. She has been involved with the Special Olympics for about 11 years and enjoys aspects such as “meeting other people of the same abilities, making new friends.”

Hull partnered with her longtime friend, Tressa Andrews of Forest Hill, on their plunge. Andrews dressed as her Baltimore Ravens-themed “hon” character, Mary “Spicy” McCormick.

Andrews began doing the Polar Bear plunge with her father, Matt Andrews, also known as the devoted Ravens superfan the “Fan Man,” a number of years ago. Her father was on hand for the plunge Saturday, dressed in a polar bear suit. She began doing super plunges six years ago as a “bucket list” item.

Andrews and Hull have been friends doing back to their time as students at C. Milton Wright High School in Bel Air, from which they graduated in 1989. The pair, along with Grau and other supporters reached out to the Fallston fire company, seeking their help in putting on Saturday’s virtual plunge.

“They’re a wonderful fire company, very community oriented, too,” Andrews said.

“We grew up in Harford County,” she added. “We’re all from here, that’s why it was important to connect with Fallston.”

Fire company president Chris Gibbons noted that volunteer fire companies have historically been the “hubs of the community.”

“We really like to be involved in any way we can,” he said. “Anything positive we can do for the community and other charitable organizations, we are all in.”

Gibbons stressed how fire company officials have worked to support the community during the holiday season, such as collecting gifts for Toys for Tots and bringing Santa and Mrs. Claus through all of the neighborhoods in the company’s service area. He said the company is trying to “bring a little sense of normalcy” in difficult times.

Special Olympics Maryland, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2020, provides opportunities for children and adults with special needs to compete in a variety of sports.

“Competition is really a positive experience in terms of building character,” said Schmutz, who noted participants learn characteristics such as discipline, punctuality and teamwork.

Special Olympics Maryland stopped its in-person competitions in the spring and has been doing virtual programs since March because of the pandemic. There have been some small-group training and competition activities, though, such as a group of Harford County athletes who do a weekly socially distanced, in-person fitness program.

Schmutz encouraged others to participate in virtual plunges this month and to visit the Plunge Maryland website for more information.

“It helps bring people tougher virtually to do something that’s fun and supports our great athletes,” he said.

Andrews, who works as a preschool teacher in Towson, stressed the importance of inclusion for people with special needs, both in the classroom and through sports.

“Sports really reaches you so much about yourself and leadership, it’s unbelievable,” she said, noting that Hull has benefited from the athletics programs and leadership opportunities.

“She gives me encouragement, actually,” Andrews said.

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