COVID won’t pour cold water on Polar Bear Plunge, as 2021 event goes virtual

Traditional chills and thrills of the Lewes Polar Bear Plunge in Rehoboth Beach, seen here in February, are giving way to virtual plunge options in 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Delaware State News file photo/Glenn Rolfe)

REHOBOTH BEACH — This year, there will be no mass of humanity along the Rehoboth Beach boardwalk and shoreline on Super Bowl Sunday.

Precautionary measures in effect during COVID-19’s resurgence have thrust the 30th edition of Special Olympics Delaware’s Lewes Polar Bear Plunge into the virtual world.

And this year, through alternative efforts to raise money supporting the approximate 4,200 Special Olympics Delaware athletes, anything goes, organizers say.

It could be a bathtub filled with cold water and ice cubes, spraying yourself with the garden hose or anything in between.

“I’ve got a friend who is going to send me a picture of he and his wife in a Jacuzzi in Arizona. And that is going to be their plunge,” said Jon Buzby, Special Olympics Delaware spokesman. “We’re not judging people how they do it, in terms of criticizing or not, and we’re not asking them to prove that they did it. They truly own their own plunge. We say that every year regarding how far in you go. But it is so true this year that you own your own plunge and it is up to you how you want to do your plunge.”

The 2020 Polar Bear Plunge was a million-dollar baby.

On Feb. 2, several hours before the 49ers and Chiefs squared off in Super Bowl LIV, 3,733 registered Polar Bears took the plunge, raising $1,018,000 — a single-event record.

That shattered the $906,000 raised in February 2019 by 3,544 Bears.

The catchphrase for 2021, Mr. Buzby said, is “Bring the Beach to Your Backyard!”

“We are actually discouraging people plunging into a natural body of water, whether it is a creek, an ocean, a river, and that is because, again, we always promote the reason our plunge is so safe is because we have so many people/safety personnel on call in the water, on the beaches there and ready to prepare for something,” he said. “So the one thing we are asking our Bears is not to plunge into any natural body of water because they won’t have the safety precautions.

“You would think it would be safe to tiptoe into the ocean by yourself in the middle of February, but you never know. So we are strongly discouraging Bears from doing that and instead coming up with unique ideas — whether it is running through the sprinkler, having somebody hose you down … having somebody pour a bucket of water on you,” said Mr. Buzby.

Making the most of a virtual plunge is the game plan of Stephanie Geissel of Camden.

“We are doing a blow up kiddie pool in my aunt’s backyard and decorating the yard with a winter scene,” she stated in a Facebook post.

The hope of organizers is that the virtual route may entice those who are not fond of running into the chilly Atlantic Ocean to join in the fun with fundraising.

“We’re hoping to make up those numbers with the towel-holders and the people who normally don’t plunge because they don’t like the cold water, but now all of a sudden, you’ve told them they can do it how and where they want, and they’ll do that. But we’re not sure it is going to make up the money part of it,” said Mr. Buzby.

“We hope that the virtual plunge might even entice some of the usual towel-holders and spectators to join in the fun and become official Bears,” said Ann Grunert, executive director of Special Olympics Delaware. “Most importantly, everyone who does virtually plunge will do so with the spirit of our 4,200 athletes in mind.”

Mr. Buzby also hopes the virtual event encourages some who haven’t taken the plunge in previous years.

“I have two people that normally (just) write us a check for $25, and this year, decided to join the plunge and have already virtually plunged,” said Mr. Buzby. “That is one of our pushes. This is the year that your towel-holder can plunge because they can do it when they want, where they want and really in whatever temperature of water they want.”

Members of the Collins family of Selbyville head for dry land and warmth after taking a dip in a past Lewes Polar Bear Plunge for Special Olympics. There will not be a massive plunge in Rehoboth Beach this Feb. 7, as organizers will take the virtual route during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Delaware State News file photo/Glenn Rolfe)

Special Olympics Delaware welcomes videos of those plunging on their own.

“One month out, which is Jan. 7, we are going to ask people — if they would like — to send us videos of their plunge,” Mr. Buzby said. “It is not a requirement, just something fun they can do. So that just means the people that have already done it can still send us their videos and then some people all the way up to the plunge.”

As January nears, SODE organizers are finalizing a Plunge Video Contest, featuring an “impressive gift” for the overall winner as selected by judges.

“We’re still putting that together, the ins and outs of what that will look like. It will be a judged contest of submitted plunge videos,” said Mr. Buzby. “It’s still being worked out and will be announced in early January.”

Video submissions will be accepted up to the close of registration the night of Feb. 7.

While the Polar Bear Plunge’s major sponsors of Wawa and Discover are back in support of the 2021 event, organizers are hopeful there will be huge virtual participation, which in turn, will generate ongoing support for SODE athletes.

“We are hopeful, but we are also realistic. We realize that this has been a difficult year for everyone in terms of finances, whether you lost your job completely, or you had hours cut back, or you had to take additional time off to be home with your kids while they were at (virtual) school,” said Mr. Buzby. “People just aren’t in the same situation they are under normal circumstances. So we realize that the person that maybe raised $1,000 last year is only going to raise $500 this year, or the person that raised $2,000 is only going to raise $1,000. We also realize that there is going to be some people that are not going to do the plunge because it is not the real plunge.”

The difficult decision to cancel the traditional plunge and go virtual was made in mid-December.

“We had a meeting with our safety crew down in Rehoboth Beach. We just decided at that point, given the forecast by the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) of what after the holidays is going to look like — similar to what we were then in the middle of post-Thanksgiving, with things getting worse every day — we just decided that probably the decision to go virtual was inevitable,” said Mr. Buzby. “So why put it off? Instead, we just went ahead and made the decision that allowed us to put all of our efforts into trying to make the virtual as successful as it could be.”

For more information, visit the Lewes Polar Bear Plunge website at or visit its Facebook page.

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