Special Olympics Maryland canceled Saturday's Polar Bear Plunge event for the first time in its 18-year history, citing unsafe weather conditions, and officials say it will not be rescheduled.
The event, held in partnership with the Maryland State Police, is designed to raise money for athletics for those with special needs. Special Olympics Maryland said 7,000 plungers had registered to dip into the icy waters of the Chesapeake Bay at Sandy Point State Park in Annapolis on Saturday, and 10,000 spectators were expected.
Both the plunge and the day's festival activities were canceled. Officials said they are looking into the possibility of holding a smaller "plunge only" event in the near future.
Jim Schmutz, the president of Special Olympics Maryland, said winds were gusting up to 25 miles per hour, creating 3-foot waves on the bay. Snow and ice built up on the shore, with another inch of snow expected later in the day.
"It's a disappointment that we can't satisfy their commitment to us," he said of those who had agreed to participate.
Schmutz said a foot-long ice shelf had formed on the edge of the bay. High winds threatened to collapse the tents set up for bands and other entertainment, he said.
"As the tide has receded, there are effectively frozen boulders of sand on the beachfront," he said. "The Maryland Park Service came out and effectively shut the beach down for safety reasons."
In 2010, officials canceled one of the day's plunge events after 8 inches of snow fell, but this is the first time since the event began in 1997 that the entire day's activities have been canceled, Schmutz said.
"This is almost a perfect storm of unprecedented conditions," he said.
Officials said they "considered all possible scenarios" for Saturday's event and "determined that there was no safe way" to hold it. Three plunges had been scheduled for the day, with the primary one to be held at 1 p.m.
Schmutz said organizers were evaluating whether they could reschedule just the plunge event for March 8, when Special Olympics Maryland had booked the park area for an event just for schoolchildren.
Plungers raise money prior to the event and those donations will not be affected by its cancellation. Organizers said the event was "on track" to raise about $1.8 million, short of a $2.5 million goal. Additional donations can be taken to any state police barracks or to the Special Olympics Maryland office. Last year, the plunge weekend saw about 10,000 participants and raised $2.2 million.
Schmutz said plungers who raised the required minimum of $75 will still get their commemorative sweatshirts via mail.
Another plunge was held Friday, when the air temperature was 14 degrees and the water was 30 degrees, but Saturday's event was expected to draw far more plungers.
"We understand people's disappointment and we share that disappointment," Schmutz said. "It was really important from our perspective ... that we provide the safest environment and not put anyone at risk, and we didn't feel that we could do that with the conditions here today."