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Taking the Plunge

Hot-blooded Marylanders hoping for icy reception

Brian Woolsey lingered in the Bay for 10 minutes at North Beach’s New Year’s Day Polar Bear Swim. Wife Lizzie waded in up to her waist. Six-year-old Mayhem James tested the water, while his sisters Eloise and baby Kolohe kept dry.

The frostbite swimming season began January 1 with barely an icicle.
    At 43 degrees, Chesapeake waters were cold. That was the common report from plungers at North Beach’s New Year’s Day Polar Bear Swim.
    “It was so cold I could only go up to my waist,” reported Lizzie Woolsey, newly of Huntingtown. “Brian stayed in 10 minutes,” she said of her soldier husband. Six-year-old Mayhem James waded in up to his knees.
    Among the Woolseys and over 300 other Polar Bear swimmers, there was shivering aplenty. But with air temperatures in the mid 50s, no icicles formed on beards, legs or in armpits.
    Many of the 15,000 now registering for the MSP 16th annual Polar Bear Plunge hope for chillier temperatures on Saturday, January 28. That’s the day that mass of men, women and children plunge into the Bay at Sandy Point State Park to support Maryland Special Olympics.
    “There’s always a debate about weather,” said Maryland Special Olympics spokeswoman Kelley Schniedwind. “One opinion is that anybody could do it on a 60-degree day. A real plunge takes a frigid day.”
    It may well be that the worse the cold, the grander the bragging rights.
    Chill advocates are likely to get their wish. Mid-January weather typically cools 10 degrees from New Year’s Day.
    Whatever the weather, the 50 or so extremists of the 2012 Super Plunge Team take their honor from dedication. Each takes 24 chilly dips into Chesapeake Bay on the hour for 24 hours. Each also commits to raising $10,000.
    School teams jump in at noon on Frigid Friday, January 27. Last year, elementary, middle and high school plungers raised nearly $150,000.
    All together, plungers raise millions each year for Maryland Special Olympics.
    “It’s absolutely our biggest fundraiser,” said Schniedwind of the event that’s now become a Special Olympics signature from Rhode Island, the first state to hold a plunge, to California and Florida, where plunges are often a little “tongue in cheek.”
    The 2011 plunge raised $3 million, which Schniedwind called a “huge percentage of our annual budget, funding statewide competitions in 20-some sports for all ages year round.”
    To join the 2012 Polar Bear Plunge, raise at least $50 in pledges and register at