Polar Plunges are too chill for these cold-hearted Do-gooders who wade into the frigid Chesapeake 24 times in 24 hours.
There are polar bear plunges, and then there is the Super Plunge. For the last 14 years, dozens of participants have shown up to plunge into the frigid waters of the Chesapeake Bay 24 times in 24 hours to raise money for Special Olympics Maryland.
“I wasn’t too sure about it at first because I was like, 24 times?” said Adam Hays, a Special Olympics Maryland athlete.
Throughout the year, Hays competes in cycling, soccer, alpine skiing, basketball, and swimming. He started going to the Maryland State Police Super Plunge as a member of the athlete media team, cheering on the participants and raising awareness for the cause.
After two years of watching from the sidelines, he decided to sign up himself. Hays has now completed the Super Plunge every year since 2005.
“As an athlete, this is pretty cool, because I’m part of a team that is helping raise money for my fellow athletes from all over Maryland, knowing that even though I freeze, we all freeze as one,” he said.
Hays said he returns every year for the camaraderie among the small, tight-knit group of Super Plungers, the challenge of the event, and “the power of inclusion for people with intellectual disabilities.”
Every hour for 24 hours, the Super Plungers race down the beaches of Sandy Point State Park into the Chesapeake Bay. Nonstop food and entertainment helps everyone stay awake as darkness falls and ice begins to form in the water.
“My fellow athletes and I, there are like six or seven of us, and we’re leading the charge out into the water. Then everybody’s running in right after us,” Hays said. “That first one is pretty darn cold. As you keep doing it for those 24 hours, you get used to it… I usually go up to my shoulders. There are some other really dedicated ones that go all the way under.”
The Super Plunge is one of five plunges Special Olympics Maryland puts on over the course of a week every January. For the other events, organizers ask participants to raise at least $75 to enter. To take part in the Super Plunge, participants commit to raising $10,000. There are typically 25 to 35 Super Plungers in comparison to the thousands of people who show up for the other events.
Donny Boyd has been plunging for 13 years, raising more than $250,000 for the Maryland athletes. One of his best friends, whose son is autistic, first introduced him to the event.
“I had absolutely no idea what was going on, but it sounded exciting,” Boyd said. “I’ve been a firefighter for 30 years, so not a whole lot intimidates me. But this was certainly a challenge.”
He did the regular plunge for two years before tackling the Super Plunge.
“Once you do the Super Plunge, you can’t go back,” Boyd said. “There’s so much excitement in that tent for 24 hours, you can’t describe it.”
Boyd has carried that excitement with him the last ten years as team captain for the Super Plunge, rallying others as they work towards their fundraising goals. He also sits on the board for Special Olympics Maryland.
This year, two of Boyd’s daughters will be joining him for the marathon event, carrying on the tradition of plunging for a cause.
“They have gotten to know a lot of athletes by name, it’s personal now,” he said. “How many people have the opportunity to do something at a higher level like this and be so involved and make a difference?”
Over the years, the Polar Bear Plunge has become a defining fundraiser for Special Olympics across the United States. Jim Schmutz, the CEO of Special Olympics Maryland, said they hope to raise $2.5 million this year, translating to around 35 percent of their annual budget.
But the event is about more than the money raised.
“It’s an opportunity for us to help people better understand the breadth and depth of our program,” Schmutz said. “We have 7,782 athletes and they’re participating year-round in 27 different sports. We’re not just a one time event.”
Plunges are far from a new phenomenon. The Coney Island Polar Bear Club, founded in 1903, claims to be the oldest winter bathing club in the United States. Members take a dip in the cold New York waters every Sunday afternoon from November to April.
In other places like Canada, Russia, and Scandinavia, plunges are historically held to celebrate New Year’s Day. People alternate between the freezing temperatures of the water and hot saunas as a way to boost their health. Although researchers have not found a link between this practice and improved physical conditions, there are some who believe the shock from the cold temperatures and the rush of adrenaline is a great way to start off a new year.
At Scott Base research center in Antarctica, an annual polar plunge is a tradition dating back decades, It’s so extreme that participants wear a harness as they jump into a hole cut in the ice.
For anyone planning to do a plunge for the first time, Boyd recommends wearing as few clothes as possible.
“As soon as you get out, you can dry off, put your dry sweats on, and start your warming process,” he said. “A lot of people will jump in with the full sweat clothes on and it’s just miserable because you can’t get them off. It intensifies the cold.”
And don’t forget your shoes.
“Your feet are more sensitive than you know,” Boyd said. “If you go into the water without something covering your feet, it’s going to be like pins and needles.”
Other Plunges Near You
Registration is now open for the fifth annual Shiver in the River taking place on February 23, 2019. Participants can join a community clean up, run or walk a 5K, jump into the James River—or do all 3. Shiver in the River is a fundraising event for Keep Virginia Beautiful. Funds raised help increase programs that support litter prevention, community outreach, education, recycling and beautification for Richmond and the Commonwealth of Virginia. Participants that register before the end of the year save on 5K registration and have a chance to win a VIP package.
Here are other polar plunges across the region:
Maryland State Police Polar Plunge
January 18, 2019 (Super Plunge)
Sandy Point State Park, MD.
January 24-26, 2019
Sandy Point State Park, MD.
Virginia Beach Plunge
February 1-2, 2019
Virginia Beach, Va.
Hilton Oceanfront Hotel
Winter Games Plunge
February 2, 2019
Canoe Creek State Park
February 23, 2019
Acworth Beach at Cauble Park
January 1, 2019
Surf City, N.C.
Roland Ave. Beach Access
Morgantown Polar Plunge
February 23, 2019
Morgantown, W. Va.