Polar Bear plunge for Special Olympics Feb. 6; Chilling for a cause

by Michael Short on February 24, 2011


Governor Jack Markell takes the plunge in 2009. Photo courtesy of Special Olympics.

This foursome was ready for a chilly dip in 2010. They are (l-r) Sean Pedrick, Bill Queener, Phillip Cane and Alan Pedrick. Photo by Michael Short.

Governor Jack Markell and a few thousand friends.

Gary Junkerman takes a dip. Photo by Michael Short.

By Michael Short

Connie Miller doesn’t let much keep her from taking her yearly polar bear plunge to benefit Special Olympics.

She didn’t let a cast on her leg keep her from taking the plunge.

And when a brutal snowstorm bore down on the Delaware coast the weekend of the plunge, she just went early before whiteout conditions began.

Last February’s snowstorm dropped 22 inches of snow on the Cape region and forced the postponement of the Lewes Polar Bear plunge. But Miller had long since taken her chilly dip alone, except for a few friends and supporters.

“There hasn’t been too much that stopped me,” she said.

On Sunday, February 6, Miller and a few thousand other hardy souls will brave the chilly waters for the annual Lewes Polar Bear Plunge to benefit Special Olympics. The quick dip will take place in front of the Rehoboth Beach Bandstand and it will raise thousands of dollars to benefit Special Olympics Delaware.

This is the major fundraiser for Special  Olympics Delaware and a handful of bears like Miller have not missed a single one of the 20 Polar Bear plunges.

Promptly at 1 p.m., they will dash into the surf in an assortment of bathing suits, togas, bear costumes and too many hats and flags to even mention. Last year’s postponed jump was into a balmy 42 degree ocean and the March 14 date caused many to dub it the O’Plunge in honor of St. Patrick’s Day.

But in 1995, the Bears jumped when the air temperature was zero degrees and the water temperature was 28 degrees. It’s not unusual to share the surf with chunks of ice.

Last year’s jump raised more than a half million dollars. In 19 years, approximately $5 million has been raised. All money raised benefits Special Olympics Delaware’s programs for nearly 3,300 children and adults with intellectual disabilities.

“It’s hard to believe that in 1992, 78 people jumped into the ocean, unsure if the event would ever be repeated to benefit Special Olympics Delaware,” said Special Olympics Delaware spokesman Jon Buzby. “Twenty years later, those same bears have been joined by thousands more to raise more than $5 million for  Special Olympics. We are indebted to the polar bears for their ongoing commitment to our athletes.”

What began as a simple plunge by the Lewes Polar Bears (even though the event is  now held in Rehoboth Beach), has grown to include a chili cooking contest, a 5K run and an ice carving contest.

Former Congressman Mike Castle attended last year. Governor Jack Markell has taken the dip two years in a row and it’s not unusual to see Miss Delaware show up for a quick swim.

This year’s festival will include a new event, a cake decorating contest sponsored by the TLC Channel’s Cake Boss: Next Great Baker.

“I just do it because I find it exhilarating,” said Miller. “I enjoy doing it. . . The bottom line is I love jumping for Special Olympics, raising money and contributing.”

“There have been times when there was ice in the water and that was pretty cold,” she said. “It’s mind over matter.”

“It’s done before you realize it,” she said.

Some years, it’s actually colder when you come out of the water and into the February winds. Smart bears come equipped with plenty of towels and robes supplied by friends and family. There’s also an after party held every year at the Rehoboth Beach Convention Center at 1:15 p.m., which offers frigid bears a chance to unthaw.

Many jump because they have relatives or friends or neighbors who take part in Special Olympics. Miller is affiliated with the Children’s Beach House in Lewes and regularly works with children facing a variety of challenges. “Special Olympics is a fabulous organization to raise money for.”

There’s a special stories section on the Special Olympics Delaware website, which allows bears to share their stories. “I’m happy that by running into the freezing cold water, I’m helping someone else,” wrote Savannah Haines before last year’s plunge. “This year, I plan on making my boyfriend and all his friends run into the water with me. I will get to hear the boys whine about how cold it is.”

“There are not many places where we can go where all we see are smiling faces,” wrote  Leah Dougherty-Maher in one posting. ” . . . All I could see on the beach were happy, laughing, giving people.”

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