Taking the plunge for Special Olympics

REHOBOTH BEACH — Roxana resident John Gilman intends to spend more than just a few chilling moments in the Atlantic Ocean this Sunday afternoon.

Mr. Gilman, the 44-year-old owner of RACC Fitness, plans to do burpees as his promised reward for pledge-level donations in fundraising for the 2019 Special Olympics Delaware Lewes Polar Bear Plunge, presented by Wawa.

For each donation of $20 or more Mr. Gilman will do one burpee fully submerged in what likely will be frigid ocean water.

“I do it as a little extra incentive for people who might want to donate $20 to keep me in the water a little bit longer,” said Mr. Gilman. “Hopefully, I’ll get about 10 to 15 of them.”

Mr. Gilman is among several thousand Polar Bears who will take the plunge at 1 p.m. at the 28th Special Olympics Delaware Lewes Polar Bear Plunge, which since its inception has raised more than $11 million supporting Special Olympics Delaware’s year-round program of sports training, athletic competition and related programs for over 4,200 children and adults with intellectual disabilities.

Thousands more in a mass of humanity will be on the beach, offering motivation, support and towel warmth along the beachfront paralleling the Rehoboth Beach Boardwalk.

On shore, Mr. Gilman will have a special cheering section, led by Frankford resident Teresa Shockley, a veteran of five previous plunges as the matriarch of Team Teresa whose friendship began through RACC Fitness Center.

This year, however, she will not plunge due to health reasons. “I am the towel holder for whoever comes out of the water. That’s what I get to be this year,” said Ms. Shockley.

So, Mr. Gilman is continuing to partner with Team Teresa and RACC Fitness Club. He takes the plunge in support of Special Olympics athletes in general and one Special Olympian in particular: Connor Hartman, a soon-to-be 24-year-old Millville resident who has autism.

“Connor is one of the people that I plunge for,” said Mr. Gilman, who competes in Spartan athletic competitions that test one’s endurance, athleticism and willpower. “I do cancer walks … I do runs. I support all my members and what they do. I am there for many reasons, but I am definitely there to support him.”

Mr. Gilman’s bond with Connor developed through RACC (Roxana Athletic Club Corporation). The last few years Connor has been a summertime member at RACC.

“They bring him to the gym to train during the summer,” said Mr. Gilman. “It’s always the summer because he’s a member of Sea Colony during winter months. And we don’t have a pool.”

In addition to family and friends, Connor is supported by Autism Delaware’s POWR (Productive Opportunities for Work & Recreation) initiative, which was created to provide adults with autism in Delaware the opportunity to work and volunteer at businesses in their communities and engage in health and wellness opportunities.

“They have a support coach that is with Connor 5 ½ hours from Monday through Friday,” said Connor’s father, Phil Hartman. “Three times a week his support coach takes him for a workout. John worked with him to allow the support coach to bring Connor to the RACC during the summer three times a week. John has been great for us, and for Connor. John actually gave him a free month membership, for September, before our Sea Colony membership kicked in. We just think the world of John.”

Autism Delaware’s POWR attempts to find employers and businesses in the communities that are willing to work with special needs people, as well as different activities and things to get them out into the community. “Connor is working at Papa Grande in Fenwick eight to 10 hours a week,” said Mr. Hartman.

Connor is an active Special Olympics Delaware athlete.

“He has done a lot with Special Olympics,” said Mr. Hartman. “He is going to be starting swimming the first of February, and that goes up to Summer Games at University of Delaware in June. He also does biking, which that event is in September. He has been doing bowling. We just had the state tournament in Dover this past Saturday. Connor also does bocce. So, Special Olympics is a big part for him, a big thing.”

“Connor has a lot of friends, and other adults that have been a big part of his life. And a lot of it is from Special Olympics,” said Mr. Hartman.

“I see that first hand,” said Mr. Gilman. “They bring Connor. He works out. And he does just as much stuff in the gym as any other person that we have.”

To date, no members of the Hartman family have taken the plunge. “I retired in 2011 … and I thought, ‘Now is the time,” said Mr. Hartman. “But, I have not plunged. Connor hasn’t either. We’re not plungers. But we have supported a couple of the plungers.”

Ms. Shockley hoped to make 2019 her sixth plunge but limitations stemming from foot surgery will keep her this year on dry land.

“Since my foot surgery, I have had trouble with my balance. And last year it was a struggle in the sand, and then when you get in that water and that water is moving … it just wasn’t good. I thought, ‘I’m going to have help walking down there’ and that just drives me crazy. I’d rather do it on my own,” said Ms. Shockley. “So, I just thought it’s better that I didn’t plunge this year. But I still will be there to support everybody because I just absolutely love everything about it.”

“She (Ms. Shockley) is one amazing woman,” said Mr. Gilman.

Ms. Shockley’s huge heart for Special Olympics stems from her past employment and passion to help others.

“I used to work at what is now the Stockley Center, and I worked at an independent group home with the disabled,” she said. “And my son (Frank Shockley, a counselor at Southern Delaware School of the Arts in the Indian River School District) actually worked when he was in college for Special Olympics. It is something we have always been a part of,” said Ms. Shockley.

At last year’s plunge, Mr. Gilman did several burpees – a multi-jump/pushup/leg kick maneuver synonymous with high-intensity training.

“I had him actually show it to me last year because I didn’t know what he was talking about,” said Ms. Shockley.

“Last year, I did a couple burpees. This year, Teresa will be Facebooking it live as I do them. I’ll probably be in there over a minute this year. Not everybody can do it, so I do it,” said Mr. Gilman, whose pulling double duty with plans to run in the 5K Run to the Plunge Saturday afternoon.

“The reason I go fully under is I know some who physically can’t. My whole motto is some of the exercising I do, Spartan races, the average person can’t do that stuff. They can’t run eight to 10 miles and do 30 obstacles,” said Mr. Gilman. “So, I am 44, and in the best shape of my life. My whole motto is to do what other people can’t do. So, if they are autistic and can’t go all the way in I do it for them. I do it for older people who still like to go in, but only get their feet wet. That is kind of my mentality of do it while I still can do it. Don’t set any limitations, because at some point in your life you’re going to have a limitation where you can’t.”

For his plunge several years ago, Mr. Gilman made good on a swimsuit pledge.

“A couple years ago, Teresa had asked me if they raised $1,000 would I wear a speedo bikini – a pink speedo bikini. And she got $1,000 raised that year,” said Mr. Gilman.

Mr. Gilman recalls his first Polar Bear Plunge.

“What I remember about it? It was cold,” he said. “But I try to convince people that it’s not as bad as everybody thinks it is. And the story I use is, I don’t care if it’s 90 degrees out when you go into the ocean and the ocean temperature is 70, you’re so hot that it still shocks your body. It’s the same thing with the Polar Bear Plunge. It is cold. But I try to tell people it’s not as bad as you think it is.”

“Of course, it wouldn’t be any fun if it was 70 degrees,” said Ms. Shockley. “You want to have little chill in the air.

“The thing about it, I think it’s more the anticipation of getting in water, than actually doing it. You’re in and out so quick. The wait is longer than the actual plunge.”

“It would be nice if the water temperature is nice and the sun is out. I’ve been fortunate, honestly, because the past five years that I have done it the weather has been great,” said Ms. Shockley, who recalls the year bitter cold that greeted her husband Eddie Shockley and other participants in the Run to the Plunge 5K held the day before the plunge.

“I remember one year that I did it, Eddie did the 5K and it was frigid that Saturday. I mean it was so cold. Eddie actually ran his fastest 5K time ever — because it was so cold! But Sunday when it came time for the plunge it was beautiful. It wasn’t 70 degrees by no stretch of the imagination but it so much nicer than the day Eddie did the 5K.”

Mr. Gilman, who personally contributed $250 as a fundraising starter, hopes there will be generous donations in support of Special Olympics Delaware.

He notes every little bit helps.

“Donate five dollars. Give up a cup of coffee that day,” he said. “Instead of eating an expensive steak, order something a little cheaper and take that little extra money you save and put it toward my fundraising. Give up a bite … and donate to a good cause.”

The Lewes Polar Bear Plunge began in 1992 when 78 plungers raised $7,000.

Last year, 3,383 Bears raised more than $875,000 in support of Special Olympics Delaware’s 19 sports programs and year-round program of sports training, athletic competition and related programs for over 4,200 children and adults with intellectual disabilities.

“Our polar bears continue to support this fabulous event year after year,” said Special Olympics Delaware Executive Director Ann Grunert. “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.”

Wawa is the presenting sponsor for the 13th consecutive year. In addition to their support at the event, leading up to and for a few weeks afterward, Wawa “change coins” in stores benefit Special Olympics Delaware.

“All of us at Wawa are proud to support the inspiring athletes of Special Olympics and honor the heroes who have and will continue to change the game,” said Wawa Sr. Director of Store Operations for Delaware Adam Schall.

“We’ve been partnering with Special Olympics for more than a decade and it’s exciting to be a part of their annual Polar Plunge and to support all participants with free coffee and hot chocolate during the event.

“We are also proud to have a team of almost 100 Wawa Associates plunging to show their support of Special Olympics and we invite everyone to join them at the event this weekend!”

In addition, longtime Special Olympics Delaware supporters Irv and Phyllis Levin will be back on the Rehoboth Boardwalk Sunday, Feb. 3, soliciting donations for the Levin Matching Fund, which matches contributions dollar for dollar in support of SODE.

Early registration

There is one noticeable change regarding early plunge registration. This year, check-in/registration on Friday and Saturday nights, Feb. 1-2, is at the newly-renovated Convention Center, not the Atlantic Sands where it’s been since the plunge moved to Rehoboth, according to Special Olympics Delaware spokesman Jon Buzby.

Plunge Saturday

Saturday activities include:

• sand sculpting demonstration (11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on beach south of Rehoboth Ave.);

• Fire & Ice event featuring ice cream and wing samples at the Rehoboth Beach Fire Department (12 noon to 2 p.m. or while supplies last);

• 5K Run to the Plunge (1 p.m.); and

• Restaurant Chili Tasting contest (2:30 p.m. to 5 p.m.).

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


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


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