To the uninitiated, it’s absolute madness. On the first Saturday in February, thousands of seemingly normal people will drive to a beach, strip down to their bathing suits, and jump in the freezing cold water. It’s as if thousands of people collectively lost a bet.
And a bet is, in fact, how the area’s annual tradition of polar plunging began. “It all started over 28 years ago,” explains Kira Northrop, Senior Director of Marketing and Communications for Special Olympics Maryland. “There was a group of law enforcement members who were actively volunteering for us. They were interested in doing something unique as a fundraising opportunity, so they decided to see how much people would pay to watch them jump in the Bay in freezing cold weather.”
Twenty-eight years later, the Polar Plunge is the main fundraiser for Special Olympics chapters of Maryland, running multiple plunges over the course of a week. The plunges altogether will bring in over $5 million for Special Olympics Maryland, and send over 14,000 people jumping into the Bay.
And the idea’s caught on: Cecil County holds an Ice Splash in Charlestown, Maryland this month, Potomac Riverkeepers Network holds its own plunge at National Harbor for climate change activism, and Special Olympics Virginia holds plunges in several locations including Virginia Beach.
Maryland’s Polar Plunge is the largest in the country, with so many participants that it now staggers its events over the course of a week.
Beginning last Friday, a group of hardcore plungers participated in the Super Plunge, an event that involved camping out at Sandy Point and jumping into the Bay on the hour, every hour, for 24 hours straight. “They are the bravest of the plungers,” says Northop, who notes that the 68 plungers included Special Olympics athletes and raised just shy of $700,000.
On Thursday, Feb. 1, over 7,000 students from area middle and high schools were bussed to Sandy Point for the Cool Schools Polar Plunge. This is the 13th year of kids plunging, and over $3 million has been raised in total. One of the top schools for participation is South River High School in Anne Arundel County, whose students have raised over $400,000.
On Friday, the Police Plunge sends law enforcement officers, first responders, and military into the Bay, before corporate teams head in during the afternoon. The Police Plunge has become a way for local law enforcement to participate in some friendly competition for bragging rights. The Anne Arundel and Ocean City Police Departments have raised over $20,000 each this year, with Ocean City PD’s Officer Neshawn Jubilee pulling in over $12,000 personally.
Jubilee, who has been with the Department since 2012, first encountered the work of Special Olympics when Ocean City Police Department officers were tasked with assisting in a medal presentation. Witnessing the joy on athletes’ faces, even when they hadn’t won gold, brought an understanding of the non-profit’s significance within the community.
“That was my a-ha moment,” Jubilee says. “That moment when you realize this is something you really want to do, to be a part of.” Jubilee began actively volunteering with the organization, and on a whim he decided to participate in a Polar Plunge seven years ago. He was immediately hooked.
“I didn’t know what it was, or what it entailed. But we got a group together and we loved it. I became determined to keep doing it, get more people involved, and raise more awareness.” Since his first Plunge, Jubilee has personally raised roughly $60,000.
The final Plunge on Saturday will bring over 7,000 bathers to the beach. And while jumping into the Bay at this time of year can be considered pure insanity, the efforts prove worthwhile. Special Olympics Maryland supports 15,588 athletes free of charge with year-round training in 27 different sports. Roughly half of the nonprofit’s operating costs are raised during the Plunge.
For first-time plungers nervous about the experience, Jubilee says not to worry.
“We get together, get the adrenaline going,” he says. “Athletes will be everywhere high-fiving us, holding signs, and thanking us. Then we all run in together. When you do it, it truly warms your heart.”
At least something’s warm.
For more information, visit plungemd.com
Is this your first plunge? Here’s what you need to know!
Maryland’s coolest party begins at 11am on Saturday, February 3, at Sandy Point State Park. Plunges will occur at 11am, 1pm, and 3pm, allowing you to choose when you want to get wet.
Beginning at 8am, the Polar Express Shuttle is available from the Naval Academy Stadium, Anne Arundel Community College, and Kent Island High School. For anyone coming to Sandy Point in their own car, parking passes are available for $20.
The beach will be open 30 minutes before plunge time. Bring your towel (or several) to leave on the beach, but refrain from wearing jewelry. However, costumes are encouraged! This is a party, after all. And dancing is considered an appropriate form of shivering.
After plunging, head to the Rams Head tent for drinks and food. All sales will help benefit Special Olympics athletes, so don’t hesitate to warm up with some cocoa.