Plunge was 'warm' 40-degree bath

Capital Gazette

The stars aligned perfectly for the 16th annual MSP Polar Bear Plunge at Sandy Point State Park yesterday.

Joshua McKerrow - The Capital People run back out of the water after splasing in yesterday at the 2012 Polar Bear Plunge at Sandy Point State Park. Between events yesterday and Friday, roughly 14,300 people registered to plunge, raising more than $2.5 million for Special Olympics Maryland.

Under blue skies and mild 53-degree temperatures, thousands plunged into the Chesapeake Bay to raise funds for a good cause - Special Olympics Maryland. As quickly as they raced into the somewhat chilly waters, they came streaming - and screaming - back to the shore.

"Between the Cool Schools event on Friday and the plunge today, over 14,300 people registered to plunge in," said Kelly Schniedwind, an event spokesperson. "So far, over $2.5 million has been raised. That's more than last year."

The totals included the efforts of 50 "super plungers," each of whom raised a minimum of $10,000 in pledges for the privilege of dunking themselves in the bay waters once an hour for 24 hours beginning early Friday morning.

The daylong, circus-like atmosphere of PlungeFest resembled a cross between a giant NFL tailgate and a frosty bikini beach party. There were three official plunge times. The newest event, the Pee-Wee Family Plunge, designed for young children and their families, took place at 11 a.m. in several wading pools. The classic bay plunges were at 1 and 3 p.m. The minimum fee to plunge was a $50 donation.

Most participants, and approximately 50,000 of their supporters, were ferried to the site in a fleet of yellow school buses. At the park, PlungeFesters walked across squishy, waterlogged fields to a village of huge white tents.

The Carnival FunFest tent was a bazaar of festival foods, funny hats, souvenir T-shirts, crafts, Robert Andrew Salon and Spa, and a train-sized sand sculpture. Rams Head packed thousands into its outdoor Ice Lodge to listen to the rock group Fuel and The Rovers. Inside the Astro Events Kid Zone tent were inflatable moon bounces and slides. Participants also could climb a portable, outdoor rock wall.In some of the park's parking lots, tailgating revelers clustered around RVs, buses and trucks.

Standing out in the crowd, Sean Tansey, 28, of Washington, D.C., dressed as a crazed, 6-foot-6-inch tall pink bunny. He wore a soft helmet with bunny ears and attached a camera to his forehead. His eyes were hidden behind mad scientist goggles.

A few yards away, an all-male group of Naval Academy midshipmen posed for photos wearing grass skirts, leis and coconut bras.

"Just say we're from St. John's College," one joked.

Dave Curtis of Annapolis planned to plunge in his plaid kilt and swim trunks.

"I raised $307," he said. "Special Olympics has always been a great program."

'Best plunge ever'

A group of 11 Magothy River Middle School instructors and staff occupied a picnic table near the Ice Lodge. The team, which raised more than $1,200, sported blue knit caps with sparkly cutouts of marlins, the school mascot, attached. It was the sixth plunge for Joe Cooper, an eighth-grade social studies teacher, who raised $140.

"This is the best plunge ever," he said. "Two years ago it was snowing. It was awful."

Linthicum resident Kevin Keeley, 31, who has Down syndrome, used to participated in the Special Olympics programs. "I used to do swimming," he said. "This is my second time. I've raised over $1,000."

He is the youngest of seven siblings. Keeley's only brother, Rob Keeley, 47, came up from Virginia Beach to dip in the bay with him.

The Plunging Hons posed for photos. The six women wore sky-high teased and sprayed wigs, with pink plastic rollers attached. They also donned outlandish sunglasses and badly applied lipstick.

"We started fundraising yesterday and got $800," Kathy Nolan said.

Along with a friend, Stephen Craig, twin brothers and Towson University students Michael and Nicholas DiSanti, 19, raised $700 for a special reason: They've seen first-hand the value of the Special Olympics. Their big sister, Samantha, 21, a senior at Severna Park High School, earned a gold medal in the kayak competition at the International Special Olympics in Greece last summer.

Flacco 'passes'

On the main stage, the emcee introduced the event's honorary co-chair, Nathan Masone, a 13-month-old from Severna Park who was born with Down syndrome, along with his parents Matt and Laura and siblings Maddie and Jake.

For the first time in four years, the other honorary co-chair, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, did not attend. On a brief video broadcast to the crowd, Flacco noted the Ravens "came up short, but we'll be back next year."

"(Flacco's) been wonderful to us," said SOMD's president and CEO, Patricia Fegan, a Severn resident. "He comes to the summer games. He called and said he needed some space."

Fegan has plunged each of the 16 years of the event.

"The water is 40 degrees today. Usually the temperature is 32 to 34 degrees," she said. "This is the warmest it's ever been. It felt like a warm bath."

When the signal was given at 1 p.m. for the participants to plunge into the bay, thousands thundered down the grainy, orange beach toward the water. A dozen yards out in the bay, a line of officers clad in water rescue gear cheerfully monitored every plunger. The majority dipped to their collarbone or did a full-body dunk, then sped out of the water at warp speed.

"I can't feel my butt," one teenaged girl screamed.

A group of midshipmen seniors dubbed The Trojan Men strode into the bay four times. Keith Deschler, RJ Hetrick, Justin Knox, Alex Roman and Kevin Roy were costumed in kid-sized plastic gladiator breastplates and helmets and clutched tiny shields and swords.

Each time they hit the water, the Trojan Men engaged in splashy mock swordplay.

Delegates Dip

"It didn't seem that cold," said state Del. Herb McMillan, an Annapolis Republican who raised more than $3,200 from friends, fellow delegates and State House staffers. Arriving with a team sponsored by Davis' Pub in Eastport, McMillan raced into the water twice with delegates Aruna Miller of Montgomery County and Jon Cardin of Baltimore City.

Last week, McMillan said Democratic House Speaker Michael Busch had given him a donation.

He deadpanned: "Mike offered to give me an extra $100 if I could stay underwater for 30 minutes."