Polar Bear Plunge still a cool event in its 25th year

REHOBOTH BEACH — “Ten, nine, eight…taking the plunge and feeling great…”

More than 3,500 “polar bears” stood pacing and prancing, chattering in the chill, watching the clock for the countdown to the signal that would send them splashing into the surf at Rehoboth Beach on Sunday.

Celebrating its 25th year, the annual Special Olympics Polar Bear Plunge has grown from a group of 78 bears who raised $7000 in 1992 to an annual family favorite for a very good cause that has raised more than $8.3 million in its history.

Some had come for the weekend activities, partaking of the local chili contest and watching the ice carving on Saturday, as well as other plunge-related events in shops and cafes. Others just dropped in for the day. But all came to be “Freezin’ for a Reason,” according to Dave Manwiller, a 15-year veteran bear from Camden.

In fact, many blue lips chanted the words, “doing it for a good cause,” as they shed their fleece and skipped into the 45-degree surf.

On the beach, their supporters stood holding warm towels and bathrobes. “It takes a strong man to stand on the beach and hold a towel,” joked Dave Evans, of Smyrna.

Mr. Evans should know. He’s been doing it for 21 years, while his wife Mary Ann plunges in. Daughter, Leanne, insists she is the real athlete,
however. Miss Evans has been an all-around Special Olympian for 26 years, playing volleyball, bowling, and swimming. When it comes to cold water, however, she takes after her dad.

The family had recently vacationed in Florida, but came back just to participate in the plunge. This year, two of the Evans grandchildren, Elizabeth (10) and Boe (8), returned with them and brought their 4-year old sister, Georgia, along to “test it out” as Georgia put it.

Indeed, the annual event seems to attract families, partly because, as many attested, anyone from 3 to 83 can do it. Still, bears are cautioned to employ the buddy system, and a group of safety divers from the U.S. Coast Guard were stationed in the water to keep the gleeful cubs from frolicking too far.

Like most athletes, the participants in the plunge have certain traditional preparations they strictly adhere to, in order to gear up for the gambol. Polar bear hats kept body heat from escaping one way while small mats and blankets patterned the sand, protecting feet.

“The sand is as cold in winter, as it is hot in summer,” Mary Ann Evans said.

Mrs. Evans prepares for the event by talking it up and gathering her gear: two small area rugs, her bathing suit, Special Olympics robe, and an orange flag that reads “Here I Am.” Other bears resembled super heroes, ballerinas, and a variety of animals. At least one giraffe was spotted at water’s edge, while real dogs and horses kept a safe distance.

Five-year veteran bear, Cody McLaughlin (9), of Smyrna, another Special Olympian, does not have any particular routine to ready for the water. He just runs in, although not very far, according to his dad, Chad. Likewise, most bears are in and out as quickly as possible, heading straight back to the waiting, warm arms of the well-wishers.

Mary Ann Evans and her plunge partner, Frank Fresconi, of Lewes, take a bit longer. “I go all the way in,” she says, adding that because of this, the tops of her legs feel it the worst.

When it was all over, the landlubbers created caves for the bears by gathering around them with towels and dry clothing. And just the other side of the boardwalk a van from WAWA rewarded spectators and swimmers alike with free hot coffee and cocoa.

This year’s polar bears were successful in raising an ice-breaking $820,000, surpassing last year’s figure by a cool $40,000. “Come back and bring a new bear next year!” Special Olympics Director of Media Relations, Jon Buzby told the massive crowd from his stage on the boardwalk. Ever enthusiastic, the crowd drained from the beach up Rehoboth Avenue, accepting the challenge and setting loftier goals for future frosty fundraising.

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