Thousands plunge for Special Olympics at rescheduled Polar Bear event

The first time seemed alarming for Emma Conger, who emerged from the 30-ish-degree water of the Chesapeake Bay with her face flushed, eyes wide, mouth agape, hair soaked, as if she'd been ambushed with a barrel of ice.

"Oh my gosh, yeah, I couldn't believe how cold it was, it was freezing," said Conger, 15, of Clarksville, sloshing out of the water at Sandy Point State Park in Annapolis with several hundred other hardy souls who took the noon dip Saturday at the 18th annual Polar Bear Plunge to benefit Special Olympics Maryland.

It was a first for Conger, who waded out near a line of police divers standing up to their chests in water a few yards out to mark the plunging zone, then dunked her head in and turned back to the beach. Her friend, Emily Jones, a classmate at River Hill High School in Howard County, had suggested she take the plunge.

"She just told me to do it," said Conger. "Whatever, so I'll do it."

Under sunny skies and air temperatures in the 50s, about 600 took the noon dip, and another 1,000 went in at 1 p.m, event organizers said. An 11 a.m. and a 2 p.m. made four for the day — a full schedule of plunging even as other aspects of the event were scaled down after the original Jan. 25 date was scrubbed in bad weather.

"I'm very pleased," said Jim Schmutz, president of Special Olympics Maryland. "Our objective was to give everybody who came out here a really good experience."

This year's harsh winter marked the first time the Polar Bear Plunge had to be postponed since the event was first held in 1997. Strong winds in late January threatened to topple the tents, and high waves had churned the sand into frozen boulders, creating a potential hazard for plungers.

In 2010, one of several plunges was canceled after a snowfall, but not the entire event.

Rescheduling the gathering meant keeping it smaller, Schmutz said, so there were about 20 vendors on hand instead of the 100 originally planned, and music on one stage rather than two. Organizers were originally expecting 7,000 plungers, but Schmutz said the total in the end could range from 2,500 to 5,000.

The goal was to raise $2.5 million with this event and another plunge held last Wednesday for students from 50 Maryland high schools. It looked as if they would finish with $2.1 million, Schmutz said.

Plunger John Storm of Crownsville said his own fundraising totals are not what they used to be, which he figures has something to do with a slower economy. Ten years ago at his first plunge, he raised $1,600, but only about $300 this year.

A big man in a long white goatee, a navy Herald Harbor Volunteer Fire Department T-shirt and loose floral-pattern swim trunks, Storm was ready for his second plunge this winter — he did another charity event a couple of weekends ago at Deep Creek Lake. For that one, he said, organizers had to cut through a 12-inch layer of ice to make way for the plungers.

"I've been here when it's 19 degrees," said Storm, 59. The worst had to be 2012, he said, with wind and snow so heavy you couldn't see the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

On Saturday the bridge view was clear, the temperatures mild. The water was bracing — an eight on 10-scale of coldest in his experience — but otherwise, he said, it's "springtime."

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