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Taking an Icy Polar Bear Plunge

Jane Hess Collins
By Jane Hess Collins
Posted on Feb 01,2012
Filed Under Entertainment , Local Style,

Taking the 2012 Polar Bear Challenge.
Taking the 2012 Polar Bear Challenge.

ALEXANDRIA, VA. - When my daughter-in-law Sarah challenged me last April to the 16th annual MSP Polar Bear Plunge to raise money for Maryland’s Special Olympics program, it seemed like a good idea at the time. Then, the closer it got to the January 28 plunge date, the worse the idea got.

Sarah and me pre-plunge. Note the fleeces and sweaters.
Sarah and me pre-plunge. Note the fleeces
and sweaters.

It wasn’t the flying leap into the Chesapeake Bay in the middle of winter that bothered me as much as what expletive would fly out of my mouth once I surfaced.  While Sarah wanted to bring her two babies, my grandkids, along to share this family bonding event, I was pretty sure that one loud f-bomb from me would ban me from grandma-hood.

Two days before the plunge, when I finally read the rules, I saw that we were not allowed to dive. We were to wade into the water from the shore, and ankle deep was good enough for the MSP organizers.  It was good enough for me too.

Second, the event, now in its sixteen year, had grown so big that we were shuttled to Sandy Point Beach from the parking lot of the Naval Academy football stadium-a 30 minute drive.  Not the ideal situation for a baby and a toddler, so the grandkids stayed home with dad.

Family crisis averted.

Sandy Point Beach before the plunge.
Sandy Point Beach before the plunge.

When we arrived at Sandy Point–Sarah, me and my husband Mike, playing both photographer and pack mule-we ran into over 64,000 of our closest friends – some of the 14,000 plungers were already showing off in bikinis and shorts (no Speedos, thankfully) in the 50-degree weather, while their posses of 50,000 huddled in fleeces. (For the record, the water was 40 degrees. Last year’s combined water/land temperature was 69 degrees, so this day was balmy by comparison).

Still, brrr.
What a block party it was–a cross between a state fair and a carnival. It is, I’m told, the biggest Special Olympics fundraiser in the country (almost $2.2 million raised last time I checked their site) and Sarah and I had both contributed our $50 entry fee. After check-in and receiving our Polar Bear sweatshirt (OK, now we had to do this) we ran into a wall of pizza, funnel cake and hot dog vendors.

Did the 20 minute wait-before-swimming rule apply here?

Thousands of people move toward the shoreline.
Thousands of people move toward the

A band played everything from Meatloaf covers to rap, and vendors sold Smirnoff hot chocolate from inside the “adult” tent. Costumed plungers mingled among us, kids had their own game area to occupy them and military recruiters beckoned us to be the few and the proud.
The closer it got to the 1 p.m. plunge (another plunge was set for 3 p.m. This was definitely not a day of leisure) the crowds moved toward the beach and the clothes shedding began.

Being first-timers, Sarah and I decided to wait until the first wave of plungers finished and ran past us into the heated changing tent.

Thousands of almost-naked humanity lined up at the shore’s edge as news helicopters hovered overhead, send currents of cold water toward the shore.  The music got louder, the emcee was screaming.


Tides of people ran into the icy water, and just as quickly, ran past us back into the heated tent. The crowd thinned. It was our time.

Sarah crossed off
Sarah crossed off "polar bear plunge" from her
bucket list.

I’ve never stripped down to a bathing suit so fast in my life. There was maybe 30 feet of beach between us and the water and there was only one way to get through this.

I haven’t sprinted since seventh grade, but it was the only way I was getting into bay. Speakers blared (what else?) Vanilla Ice’s “Ice, Ice Baby” as we darted across the sand to, I was sure, death by hypothermia.

I stopped when my legs went numb, when the water was about mid-thigh. “Had enough?” I asked Sarah. Our original plan was to dunk ourselves and experience the full-body immersion. Now, standing in the almost-freezing water, that seemed like a really stupid idea.

“Yep,” she said. We turned around and tried to dash out, discovering that it’s much slower to run against tide than with it.

We dried off and victoriously donned our Polar Bear Plunge sweatshirts.

We did it.  

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