Polar power propels Plunge for Special Olympics

Over 3500 “Bears” attended last year’s 26th Annual Lewes Polar Bear Plunge held at Rehoboth Beach to benefit Special Olympics Delaware. This year’s plunge is set for Feb. 4. (Delaware State News file photo)

REHOBOTH BEACH — Cindy Atkinson says the annual Lewes Polar Bear Plunge is an event that leaves its brave — or crazy — participants with cold feet, but an unmistakable warm feeling in their hearts.

Ms. Atkinson created the Smyrna Plunging Peers in 2015, when the behavioral support specialist in the Smyrna School District was able to convince a few family members, administrators, teachers and students to join her in taking their first frigid dip into the Atlantic Ocean.

The Smyrna Plunging Peers haven’t stopped ever since. In fact, they’ve grown each year.

They will join thousands of other participants again for this year’s 27th annual Special Olympics Delaware Lewes Polar Bear Plunge, presented by Wawa, that is set to take place Sunday, Feb. 4 at 1 p.m. at Rehoboth Beach. There will also be related plunge activities next Saturday.

Ms. Atkinson said she cannot wait to experience that camaraderie she feels every February once again.

Cindy Atkinson of Smyrna warms up by pouring warm water on her leg after a recent Polar Bear Plunge. (Submitted photo)

“With one Plunge under our belts, we felt excited to do it again in 2016,” she said. “We realized our excitement must have been contagious because our team size had doubled and our fundraising effort won us the title of Cool Schools winner for most funds raised (about $7,000).

“By 2017 Smyrna School District staff, students, our families and friends had recruited even more bears and with great pride and pleasure we were able to donate over $14,000 to Special Olympics Delaware, keeping the Cool Schools trophy in Smyrna.”

Ms. Atkinson’s Smyrna Plunging Peers are now more than 50 plungers strong. Her goal this year is to raise $15,000 and she promises if her team reaches that, she will not only plunge, but will go completely under the water.

“The energy on the beach is undeniable,” said Ms. Atkinson. “So many people coming together to do something a little crazy all in the name of Special Olympics.

“I plunge because I have gotten to witness firsthand the magic that Special Olympics brings to people’s lives. The cold is temporary but that feeling of happiness lasts a lifetime.”

The annual Lewes Polar Bear Plunge has raised more than $10 million for Special Olympics programs since its inaugural event in 1992.

The money that is raised goes to Special Olympics Delaware’s year-round program of sports training, athletic competition and related programs for more than 4,200 children and adults with intellectual disabilities.

The Plunge has grown into one of the biggest fundraisers in Delaware.

The event had humble beginnings back in 1992 when 78 plungers raised $7,000. Last year, 3,602 bears raised more than $900,000, a record for the event, and it keeps growing.

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

“Our polar bears continue to support this fabulous event year after year,” said Ann Grunert, executive director of Special Olympics Delaware. “And they also continue to recruit their friends to join them. This event truly is family-friendly and the perfect way to give back to the community and support such a worthy cause.”

Bears facing cool forecast

Some early weather readings show that this year’s Plunge should not disappoint the participants.

A very preliminary 10-day forecast on weather.com predicts a high temperature of 40 degrees the day of the Plunge with a 30 percent chance of morning showers.

That’s a far cry from 1995 when 339 people jumped into the ocean when the air temperature was zero degrees with a minus-25 wind chill.

The Smyrna Plunging Peers have a goal to raise $15,000 during this year’s Lewes Polar Bear Plunge. (Submitted photo)

Still, the water temperature in the Atlantic Ocean off Rehoboth Beach on Thursday was recorded at a teeth-chattering 36.7 degrees.

Teagan Buss, a fifth-grader at John Bassett Moore, warned the participants to take the cold seriously. She has been plunging with the Smyrna Plunging Peers since their first year in 2015.

“Wear something on your feet because the sand is freezing cold and just be ready for it,” she said. “You don’t want to go in without being aware.

“I love all of it … and more. It’s scary because you know it is going to be freezing but it is worth it because you also know you are helping people.”

This year’s Polar Bear Plunge will not only benefit a great cause, but will serve as the perfect tune-up to Super Bowl Sunday festivities – even more so this year with the Philadelphia Eagles playing the New England Patriots for the NFL championship later that same day.

The polar participants will just have to thaw out a little bit before kickoff.

“The sand is shockingly cold, so by the time you hit the water it isn’t that bad,” Ms. Atkinson said. “I do not like to be cold, so I bring warm bottles of water with me to dump on my feet when we are done. It seems to help me warm up.”

More than just a frigid dip

The Polar Bear Plunge has grown into two days’ worth of festivities.

Janet Fowler, Lorna Wohl and Nancy Pezzino all from Philadelphia, dress for the occasion last year. (Submitted photo)

Preliminary Plunge activities on Saturday include a sand sculpting demonstration from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. on the beach south of Rehoboth Avenue and a Fire & Ice event featuring ice cream and wing samples at the Rehoboth Beach Fire Department from noon until 3 p.m.

There will also be a 5k Run to the Plunge at 1 p.m. on Saturday along with a Restaurant Chili Tasting contest from 2:30 until 5 p.m.

In addition, restaurants and retailers throughout the Rehoboth Beach area provide registered “Bears” with special discounts and activities throughout the weekend.

Then, on Sunday, it’s time to plunge.

Katie Wood, principal at Clayton Elementary School, has one tip for new plungers.

“Bring a friend to cheer for you, hold your towel and take pictures as proof of the crazy thing you did,” Ms. Wood said. “Know that you don’t have to go all the way in the water, just getting your feet wet counts as participating.”

Teagan summed up how most of the human polar bears feel about the event.

“The best thing about the Plunge is that you are raising money for Special Olympics, kids who need our support,” she said. “I do the Plunge because I love to help. I like that I have a lot of friends who are there to support Special Olympics, too.”

More information on the Plunge and all weekend events can be found at www.plungeDE.org.

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

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