Polar Bears getting ready to take the Plunge for Delaware Special Olympics

The first wave of Polar Bears heads for dry land after taking the the Lewes Polar Bear Plunge for Special Olympics last year in Rehoboth Beach. The 2019 Plunge was a record-setter as 3,544 registered Polar Bears raised more than $906,000. (Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe)

REHOBOTH BEACH — Lewes Polar Bear Plunge veteran Ann Grunert vividly recalls her first “Plunge.”

“I guess I remember thinking I would die, the first time,” she said. “I just couldn’t mentally wrap around the idea of jumping in that cold, freeing water — when I’m always cold. I just thought we would die. I was so exhilarated because I was able to come back out in one piece …”

Ms. Grunert is executive director of Special Olympics Delaware, whose year-round program of sports training, athletic competitions and related programs serve more than 4,000 children and adults with intellectual disabilities.

Ms. Grunert survived the first Plunge, and in keeping with commitment and tradition has weathered an annual plunge every year since.

So have waves upon waves of Polar Bears who collectively have turned what began as a rather small event into one of the largest spectacles on the Delmarva Peninsula – the Lewes Polar Bear Plunge for Special Olympics.

Sunday, Feb. 2 is the date for 29th Annual Lewes Polar Bear Plunge. It is staged on the beach along the Rehoboth Beach Boardwalk, its venue since 1998 after a nasty nor’easter damaged the park area at Cape Henlopen State Park.

It’s an event structured on fundraising, awareness and inclusion.

The 2019 Plunge was a record-setter as 3,544 registered Polar Bears raised more than $906,000. It eclipsed the 2018 monetary plateau of $875,000 raised by 3,383 Bears.

Since its inception, the Plunge has raised more than $12 million for SODE.

It all began in 1991 when Special Olympics Delaware approached the Lewes Polar Bear Club with the proposition of designating one of their five plunges annually to benefit Special Olympics. The Lewes Polar Bear Club, headed by Dave Frederick, in 1982 began plunging five times each year at Cape Henlopen State Park on the first Sunday of the month from November through March. The lone exception is January when they plunge on New Year’s Day.

The club agreed to February, and their plunge in 1992 was dedicated to Special Olympics Delaware.

Ms. Grunert recalls that initial event at Cape Henlopen State Park.

“I remember standing on the beach with our backs to the ocean looking up at the bathhouse in Lewes, at Cape Henlopen, and we wondered if anybody would come,” she said. “We were floored that 78 people came and we raised over $5,000. We thought we had hit the moon.”

Levin a fixture

Over the years, one of the most recognizable Rehoboth Boardwalk figures on Polar Bear Plunge Sunday is Irv Levin. His personal passion for Special Olympics Delaware is his 47-year-old son Jamie, a longtime Special Olympian who these days competes mostly in bowling.

An upstate businessman and real estate owner, Mr. Levin is a self-proclaimed hustler. He teams with a couple helping hands, and sometimes wife Phillis, to canvass prospective patrons traversing the Boardwalk for donations that he pledges to match through the Irv & Phillis Levin Matching Fund.

Irv Levin looks on as State Rep. Earl Jacques, right, of Newark makes a donation to Irv & Phillis Levin Matching Fund during the 2019 Lewes Polar Bear Plunge for Special Olympics Delaware. (Submitted photo)

“I have got two people, one at each end and I’m in the middle,” said Mr. Levin. “I raise on an average of $25,000 to $30,000 and then I match it. The high has been $30,000. A lot of it is the letters I have sent out to people I have been dealing with for years either in business, or like a friend who is a dentist, a lawyer that I have used for years.

“The Boardwalk has been a big help,” he added. “On the average I can raise $8,000 to $10,000 on the Boardwalk. I start early, about 11 o’clock.”

“The last couple of years I’ve done a double, instead of a (single) match,” Mr. Levin said. Which means a $100 contribution equates to $300 for SODE.

“A lot of people come up and talk to us because they know us, and they know what we’ve done, and they make nice remarks to us,” said Mr. Levin. “That’s what makes it worthwhile.”

“It is just awesome what Irv and his wife do for us,” said Donnel Bailey, whose family has been active in the Special Olympics Delaware program for many years. “The whole weekend is just awesome. People are coming together for one cause – for Special Olympics.”

All hands on deck

Ms. Bailey’s son, Sasha, is 25 and has been competing in Special Olympics events since he was 8. Her husband, Robert Bailey, Sasha’s stepfather, is the Sussex area director for Special Olympics Delaware. He has been involved in coaching and training for many years.

And they annually take the plunge. And not just once.

“We plunge twice on that weekend,” said Ms. Bailey.

They plunge the Friday morning before the Plunge, joining Special Olympics Delaware staff as they arrive in Rehoboth to begin setup.

“The last couple of years because of how it has grown, it is important that we are all hands on deck (on Sunday),” said Ms. Grunert. “We still felt it was important to be at the forefront of doing something we are asking other people to do. We are still committed to doing that; we just do it at a different time. We do it the Friday before the Plunge when we come down to set up.”

Sasha Hudson, among the many athletes supported by Special Olympics Delaware, tests the water during last year’s Plunge.

Sasha, meanwhile, will be making his sixth plunge next month.

“It’s a little bit cold,” said Sasha.

“We’ve plunged in all types of weather – snow, sleet, rain …,” said Ms. Bailey.

“When we plunge on Friday with staff, it is very different from Plunge Sunday,” said Mr. Bailey. “In the morning it is extremely cold. The water is like ice cold. Not like in the 40s on Sunday in the afternoon. We jump in Friday by 10 o’clock in the morning.”

“We have a Polar Bear Plunge team,” said Mr. Bailey. “As of July 1 last year, I became the new area director of Sussex County. All my son’s (Sussex) Riptide team, we get together. We take pictures. My basketball team, track and field team and my long-distance running team, we all get together and we plunge together as a team on Sunday.”

At the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games held in Seattle, Washington, Sasha represented Team Delaware and brought home four medals: gold in the 200-meter dash and 400-meter dash, and silver medals in the 100-meter dash and 4 by 100-meter relay.

Opportunities such as this for Sasha and thousands of others, his parents say, is because of Special Olympics Delaware’s program and the incredible support for its fundraising events, such as the Lewes Polar Bear Plunge.

“One of the biggest things that touches my heart is that in the state of Delaware, it doesn’t cost the athletes or the families a dime for their equipment, for their uniforms or anything. It is all paid for by Special Olympics Delaware,” said Mr. Bailey.

Other events

The Lewes Polar Bear Plunge for Special Olympics Delaware culminates a weekend of activities. The list for Saturday includes the 5K Run to the Plunge, Chili Contest (restaurant chili cookoff) and Fire & Ice Festival (Polar Ice Cream Throwdown and Hot Wing Sampling).

The “Sand Bears” will sculpting in the sand Saturday, Feb. 1 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and Sunday, Feb. 2, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., just south of Rehoboth Avenue.

Andy West, Darrell O’Connor, Marc Schaffer and Heather Williams plan to return to carve castles, bears and more from a giant pile of sand on the beach and hope to create a great backdrop for Polar Plunge photos.

Mr. West and Mr. O’Connor will be back for the third year for the Polar Bear Plunge weekend.

An ice sculpting demonstration traditionally is held the morning of Plunge Sunday. The Plunge is at 1 p.m.

The Polar Bear Plunge draws supporters and participants from well beyond Delaware’s border.

Why do it?

Why do otherwise sane people dash, tiptoe or actually plunge into the Atlantic Ocean, facing water temperatures sometimes close to the freezing point and wind chills even lower?

The answer is simple, says Ms. Grunert.

Members and coaches of Sussex Riptide team gear up for the 2019 Lew Polar Bear Plunge for Special Olympics Delaware.

“I just think it has become a ‘bucket list’ — daring to do something you may or may not be comfortable with and knowing that in the end you are doing it all for a good cause,” said Ms. Grunert. “So, if your coldest moment becomes their joy, of being able to participate in our program, it makes it warm all over just because of the cause.”

But through all its growth, exposure and popularity, Ms. Grunert says the event remains grounded in simplicity.

“That is what the event is; it’s a plunge,” Ms. Grunert said. “We have worked very hard to keep that spirit and not make it anything more than that, even though we have surrounded it by a weekend festival because people are in town. We have stayed very true to what the Lewes Polar Bears intended for the event. It has continued to amaze us. To be quite honest we try not to do something that is going to upset the apple cart.”

“It’s beautiful in its simplicity,” Mr. Grunert added. “We are overwhelmed that people in such numbers would not only want to come and do something like this but would do it in support of a group of people who typically have been kept behind closed doors. And by this, we are bringing them out to the light of our community and showing that they do deserve our respect and support, which is more valuable than the huge dollars raised.”

For more information and to register, visit www.plungede.org.