After the 2014 Polar Bear Plunge didn't take place on its originally scheduled date of Jan. 25, because of extreme weather and unsafe conditions, event organizers found a way to reschedule the event for March 8.
"It was really important," said Jim Schmutz, president and CEO of Special Olympics Maryland. "It's the 18th year that we've been doing this, and it's become a Maryland tradition. People look forward to it -- particularly the time of year to get out and break the cabin fever."
Schmutz said that although it may have seemed counterintuitive to some to cancel a Polar Bear Plunge because of the weather, with the conditions being harsher than normal, safety had to be paramount.
"The confluence of the wind, the temperature, the waves on the bay all contributed to an unsafe environment," Schmutz said. "It was a difficult decision to make, but absolutely the right one."
The Plunge has grown throughout the years, and the infrastructure to accommodate that growth has expanded as well. The logistics of rescheduling such an event proved to be difficult, Schmutz said, but the organizers found a way to make it work.
"We moved quickly to our options as far as what we could do," Schmutz said. "The Maryland State Police, the Park Services and the Department of Natural Resources all came together in a very supportive way to help make it work. The logistics to put the event on are such that reengaging the people, the infrastructure, the resources was a challenge."
A major factor in the ability to reschedule was the Cool Schools Challenge Plunge taking place March 5, Schmutz said. The Cool Schools Challenge Plunge is in its fifth year and is a scaled-back version of the original Plunge for school-age kids.
The Plunge is the biggest fundraiser each year for Special Olympics Maryland, and Schmutz said donations had been coming in at a high rate and would continue to climb because of the additional days to fundraise.
"Our goal this year is to raise $2.5 million," Schmutz said. "Right now, we're sitting on about [$1.7 million]. That would include the Cool Schools. From the Plunge itself, we're looking at about [$2.1 million] and an additional 400,000 from the Cool Schools. People can still register for the Plunge. People can even walk up -- it would require a $75 donation or pledges raised."
With the Plunge back on, participants who look forward to the event each year will have the opportunity to head to Annapolis and share in the fun.
North East resident Chris Starling said he was excited that the event was back on the calendar.
"I've always had a soft spot in my heart for the Special Olympics ever since high school, when they had Special Olympics as a Cecil County event at my high school," Starling said. "I volunteered as a hugger and was there to support the athletes, and was there to provide encouragement and morale for the athletes before, during and after the event. I really felt great doing that event."
Starling, a firefighter at Aberdeen Proving Ground who started participating in the Plunge eight years ago with a team, has continued to make the hour-long trip on his own.
"I always knew about the Plunge, but never really took the initiative to get involved with it until a group of guys from my work formed a team," Starling said. "For three years, we all went down together. Cops and firefighters from Aberdeen Proving Ground made up our Plunge team. We stayed together for three years, and we kind of disbanded. I'm not really sure why.
"But I stuck with it. I have an uncle who had special needs. He was never a Special Olympics athlete, but I felt I was supporting folks like him. It is certainly a worthy thing to do with your time, and it's a lot of fun."
Starling, who has raised more than $12,000 combined while participating in the Plunge, said the fundraising side of the event had become as enjoyable as the Plunge, and his supporters had continued to turn out year after year with donations.
"The folks that run this event do an outstanding job helping someone like me raise money," Starling said. "When you register on the website, you have the ability to send a mass e-mail to all the folks who have supported you over the years. It's an automatic e-mail. I immediately start getting e-mails back like, 'Oh Chris, I'm so glad to hear you are doing this again.'
"And they say they are going to forward it to their friends, and it really starts networking organically. Folks are really generous. It seems to really touch a lot of people either directly or indirectly, so gathering support is the easy part -- much easier than jumping in the bay."
Schmutz said he was happy that the Plungers would have their day in the bay.
"They deserve the opportunity to plunge," Schmutz said. "It's an interesting mix that I think is really unique. We've got the Maryland State Police and all law enforcement agencies supporting the event. We've got corporate partners like Aerotech and Constellation Energy and Carnival. And then we've got community organizations like the Council of Ravens Roosts and organizations like the American Legion and the Knights of Columbus. And then you've got this broad cross section of the population that cuts across culture and socioeconomics, and really it's a representation of the best of what this state has to offer."