On Saturday afternoon, it was not quite 20-degrees and bitingly cold on the beach of Sandy Point State Park. The snow was steadily coming down, occasionally buffeted by the winds blowing off of the Chesapeake Bay. I stood in a very large propane-warmed tent with several hundred other men where together we stripped off our winter jackets, hats, gloves, shirts, and pants to nothing but a bathing suit and water shoes. Accompanied by my other team members, I exited the tent to stand on the beach with thousands of other people, most of whom wore similarly dressed in nothing but bathing suits and water shoes.
I remember thinking to myself, “Hey, I’m not as cold as I thought I’d be!” The snow was falling even harder now on my head, bare back and shoulders. I looked down to see several inches of snow churned into the sand.
In a few moments, my wife Blairlee, our daughter Kathryn, and our aunt Debra joined us from the women’s changing tent. They joined up with Matthew, Jeremy and me. Our team was assembled and ready to go.
Stretched out in front of us loomed the ominous, shadowy dark, frigid waters of the Chesapeake Bay, waving and lapping, effortlessly absorbing the sheets of snow that fell into it. It was like a deep watery abyss swelling and rolling just yards from where I stood. In a matter of minutes, all of us standing on the beach would be plunging ourselves into those icy cold waters of the Bay.
The crowd was as raucous and as pumped with fear and adrenaline as I’d ever seen. They were cheering each other on and running and dancing in place. Music and a countdown piped in behind us on a large sound system propped up on a stage. In mere moments, all of us would walk out waist-deep into the water, and if we dared, plunge underneath for a wintery baptism by fire we’d never forget.
But why were we doing this?
We were a part of the 14th annual Maryland State Police Polar Bear Plunge to benefit Special Olympics Maryland. It’s a large, widely sponsored event that attracts thousands of people every year who have worked to raise their own funds for themselves and their plunge teams. Our team is on pace to raise nearly $3,000, but the event itself, once all receipts and donations are in, raises well over 3-million dollars to benefit the athletes of Special Olympics Maryland. It’s one of the most well-organized, phenomenal fundraising events I have ever seen.
Of course, for my family, the Polar Bear Plunge has become a very personal event. Blairlee and I are proud parents of Jacob, who is almost 2-years-old and has Down syndrome. We’re really looking forward to the years down the road when Jacob will be old enough to become a Special Olympics athlete. All of Special Olympics events are free for their athletes.
Looking around on that beach, I was so grateful to be surrounded by people who make it possible for someone like my son to be a Special Olympian. I guess you could say that we were there helping to “pay it forward” in our own small way. I wondered what all these other people were thinking as they were ready to plunge into the Chesapeake Bay. Was it anything other than, “I’m gonna be sooo cold!”
But as I stood there, waiting for the magic moment to arrive, I thought to myself, “Isn’t this the strangest spectacle I’ve ever seen?” I mean, what does this say about the culture in which I live that thousands of people would do something like this, which borders on the purely idiotic, all the while telling ourselves and others that it’s for a good cause?” I’m sure some social psychologist could write a thesis on social phenomena like these where crowds of humanity organize themselves to plunge into a large body of water in the dead of winter in nothing but their bathing suits, all for charitable purposes. What does this say about us?? I may not want to know…
Then the moment arrived! Our Polar Bear plunge team made our way down the beach towards that cold, watery abyss. Blairlee and I stayed together and lost our other team members to the crowd. We hit the water, and immediately sharp, cold pain hit my feet and ankles. We kept wading on in, driven by pure adrenaline, passing people who were running out, shivering, yelling, “I’m so cold!” This didn’t seem so good, but Blairlee and I kept going out. We got to our knees, then hips, then up to our navels. State divers created a perimeter to stop us from going further out than that.
Blairlee and I looked at each other and laughed. I think for us, it was a moment of fierce, celebratory victory. We had been through so much together raising Jacob, through nearly two years of joy and pain, laughter and tears, hospitals, surgeries, therapies, doctors and specialist visits, and a whole lot of tender fun, too. Now, we couldn’t stop laughing and smiling. Blairlee asked, “Do you want to go under?” I yelled back, “Yeah! Yeah!”
So under we went. The water was so cold that as it enveloped my chest and head, it snatched the breath right out of me. I have never been so stunned by coldness is my life! I think that if I had been in the open water, I easily could have drowned. But instead I came back up, pumped my fists in the air and gave a loud victory cry. We had done it!!
Blairlee and I made our way back up to the beach, grabbed our towels from Aunt Debra, and scurried off towards the heated tents. My feet were so numb that if felt like walking on stumps. It took me probably fifteen minutes of standing, soaking wet in the cold and snow to get back inside the tent. The only grace I had were the warm bodies that surrounded me. I could see a light cloud of steam lifting off our bodies as we inched closer to getting inside that warm, propane-heated tent.
Several times, the music over the speaker system got interrupted by medical emergency calls. At least five different people who were standing outside required emergency medical care. I found out later that one of them, a girl who suffered a severe asthma attack, collapsed right in front of Blairlee. That evening, we learned that over 100 people were treated for hypothermia. The cold had gotten so bad that the event’s medical staff insisted on canceling the 3 PM plunge.
Finally, I was able to weave myself inside to change my clothes. As our team gathered again from dressing, we decided to high-foot it back home. We all needed a good thawing out!
So, the obvious question is: would I do this again. Without reservation, I say yes!! As a lover of people, parent of a child who will be a Special Olympian, and someone who has it in him to go out and do borderline idiotic things like these, there’s no question. As long as I’m healthy and able, I’ll be back next year. I thank God for the opportunity!!