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Shivering for g-g-good cause

The Baltimore Sun

The good news was that the Chesapeake Bay was a couple degrees warmer than the air temperature for yesterday's Maryland State Police Polar Bear Plunge. The bad news was that the air temperature was a balmy 34 degrees.

But freezing must be part of the fun. What else could explain the phenomenal growth of the annual fundraiser for Special Olympics Maryland? Held for 12 years at Sandy Point State Park in Annapolis, the event is believed by its organizers to be among the largest plunges in the world.

"Plungers" have multiplied like gremlins, from 300 in 1997 to an estimated 10,000 yesterday. Add to that another 15,000 or so spectators yesterday. Each participant raised a minimum of $50 for the charity. Donations exceeded $3 million yesterday, compared with $100,000 in the second year.

The impressive donations total - about $1 million more than last year's - was helped along by Ellwood "Bunky" Bartlett, Mega Millions lottery winner and, more importantly, plunger. He gave $1 million.

This year was by far the best-attended plunge yet, said event spokeswoman Kelley Wallace Schniedwind. So many people showed up that the registration line snaked back hundreds deep throughout the morning. Organizers added an impromptu 1 p.m. plunge to the planned plunges at noon and 3 p.m. - the first year with multiple plunges.

Parking? Try Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, eight miles away. Bathrooms? Ten-minute wait for the port-a-potties.

Even its organizers concede that the plunge has "inexplicably drawn legions" in recent years.

The Polar Bear Plunge is now carried live on a local television station and features a stage show that yesterday included appearances by both Miss Maryland and Miss Teen Maryland, who later traded trendy clothes for plunge-appropriate attire.

This year the vending got serious, in the form of "Bunky's Beach Party," a heated tent with a boardwalk-like atmosphere of fried food, souvenirs and carnival games. Adding to the festival feel were politicians shaking hands and posing for photographs. Among them were Gov. Martin O'Malley and former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. Both plunged.

Tailgate parties abounded at vehicles that had scored close-in parking spaces in the wee hours of the morning. Adding to the football feel were dozens of purple-clad Ravens fan club members and a handful of current and former players. Among them were Michael McCrary, Adam Terry and Haloti Ngata. All plunged.

A regular cast of characters come back year after year. Among them is Mike Dumbrowsky, a nine-time participant known for wading into the frigid waters with a large blow-up palm tree.

"It keeps me warm out there," he said, emerging yesterday. The mind-over-matter trick must work since he ambled back into the water several times for more photographs.

As the noontime plunge approached, bikini-clad women and shirtless men staked out a spot on the beach for their towels. The shoreline was as packed as a sizzling July day. Except, of course, it was January.

Plungers generally fell into one of two categories: "I'm not cold - I'm cool!" or "What was I thinking?"

Falling squarely into the first category was Dumbrowsky and his brethren, those fully costumed in chicken, polar bear, penguin, crab and Santa Claus costumes, to name a few. An Elvis or two makes an appearance most years.

Joe O'Connor of Annapolis had been like that, cheerfully plunging each of the seven previous years. He died suddenly two weeks ago, but a team of 15 plungers quickly formed to honor his memory. They raised $3,000.

The enthusiasts charged into the water as if it were the highlight of their year.

Then there were those of the "What was I thinking?" variety. Autumn Hilsinger, a senior at McDaniel College in Westminster, huddled with about two dozen classmates and teachers in the long minutes before noon.

"I'm freezing," she said. "I hope I don't die."

They, too, charged into the water, but their speed reflected a desire to just get this over with.

When they emerged, Gary Childs of Baltimore and his daughters Nicole and Natalie, both in their 20s, wrapped themselves tightly in beach towels.

"I did this last year, and my daughters said, 'Oh, we'll do it with you Dad!'" he said. "Now they hate me."

And no matter what the costume of the plunger - chicken suit or conservative T-shirt and shorts -nearly all wore the same thing underneath: a thick coat of goose bumps.


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