Polar Bears go for the cold during Special Olympics’ Plunge

About 4,000 hearty souls are expected to dip their toes in the icy Atlantic Ocean Feb. 5 for the Lewes Polar Bear Plunge to benefit the Special Olympics. (Delaware State News file photo/Marc Clery)

REHOBOTH BEACH — There is something about jumping into the frigid waters of the Atlantic Ocean in February that can make a person run the full gamut of emotions in just a matter of seconds.

It is the combined factor of frigid weather, fear and fun that attracts thousands of people, also known as Bears, each year to participate in the Lewes Polar Bear Plunge, which will be celebrating its 26th annual edition in Rehoboth Beach on Sunday, Feb. 5 at 1 p.m.

Not only is the Polar Bear Plunge usually a zany day of craziness, but it also the largest fundraiser of the year for Special Olympics Delaware and serves as the perfect tune-up to Super Bowl Sunday festivities.

“I think it’s just the challenge,” said Dover’s Don Sloan, who will be participating in the plunge for the 16th time this year. “You don’t think about it.

“You’ve got adrenaline going full speed ahead when go in the water. When you get out of the water it actually feels warmer. Once you get in and get out, you realize that everything’s going to be OK.”

Mr. Sloan had raised $3,508 in pledges by midday Tuesday. It was the second-highest individual total so far.

That is another thing that makes the plunge so special. The money raised goes to a worthy cause as it supports 4,000 Special Olympics Delaware athletes with year-round sports training, competition, health and fitness opportunities and more.

Plus, as Jon Buzby, the director of media relations and program innovations for Special Olympics Delaware, said, participants just never know what to expect.

Mr. Buzby has taken the wintry dip in all but the first Polar Bear Plunge. There is one year in particular that stands out in his mind.

“I’d have to say the most memorable thing was 1995 when 339 people jumped in the ocean when the air temperature was zero degrees and a minus-25 wind chill,” he said.

The event has certainly gained in stature throughout the years. In its inaugural year in 1992, there were 78 people

From left, Bruce and Claudia Leister of Magnolia, and Don Sloane of Dover, experienced relatively mild weather at last year’s Polar Bear Plunge. (Submitted photo)

who took the plunge and raised $7,000. Last year, 3,501 plunge participants raised an event-record $820,000.

Human polar bears have raised more than $9.1 million over the past 25 years.

“I think it’s a combination of the cause and it being a unique fundraising event,” Mr. Buzby said. “People have made this an annual get-together with family, friends, college roommates and others.

“And now we are seeing second and third generations of the original plungers taking part in it. It’s an event that can be successfully completed no matter your age, income, where you are from or what kind of shape you are in.”

The fundraiser moved from its original home in Lewes to Rehoboth Beach in 1998 and has grown with participants and fundraising each year since.

Mr. Buzby hopes to have 4,000 plungers take the quick, cold dip into the ocean this year. As of noon on Tuesday, 2,145 Bears had registered for this year’s event.

“Our number of plungers the past few years we’ve always (tried to attract) the (same) number of athletes we serve, which has grown from 3,700 last year to 4,000 this year,” he said. “So our goal is 4,000 Bears.

“We’ve been fortunate to increase the fundraising amount every single year of the plunge and so our hope would be this year we’d do the same and raise more than last year’s $820,000.”

Nowadays, the Polar Bear Plunge is more than just an hour or two of fun on a Sunday. It has grown into an entire weekend event.

Not only is there Sunday’s plunge, there will also be Saturday, Feb. 4 events such as the Hot Wings & Ice Cream Sampling at the Rehoboth Beach Firehouse at noon, the 5K Run to the Plunge at 1 p.m. and the Restaurant Chili Contest at 2:30 p.m. at several downtown restaurants.

Plunge Weekend Festival visitors can also witness sandcastles at the plunge throughout the day Saturday, as creations will be formed in the sand by beach artists Darrell O’Connor and Andy West from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on the beach south of Rehoboth Avenue.

There will also be Ice Carving at the Plunge in the vicinity of the boardwalk on Sunday.

“Special Olympics Delaware has worked with the town quite a bit in promoting the Polar Bear Plunge,” Mr. Sloan said. “It’s a pretty big event now.

“My girlfriend will be participating in her first plunge this year. We plan to eat, drink and plunge — and then come back to Dover for a little Super Bowl festivities.”

Mr. Buzby is pleased with how the event has broken into the consciousness of the entire state over the years.

“This really is much more than the plunge,” he said.

“The weekend festival provides families an opportunity to participate in several events that are not only fun, entertaining and sometimes educational, but also help contribute to the total money raised for the weekend.

“Overall, just watching it grow from a small fundraiser to a weekend-long, multi-event fundraiser that attracts more than 25,000 people throughout the weekend is simply amazing. We truly believe that being part of the SODE Polar Bear Plunge is a ‘Delaware thing to do.’”

For more information, visit plungede.org.

Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney can be reached at mfinney@newszap.com.

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