By Ben O'Brien
The mighty Chesapeake Bay beckons -- waiting, watching, and hoping to shiver the spines of all who dare to enter her icy waters.
|Plungapalooza ’09 raised more than $2.5 million for the Maryland Special Olympics as 11,000 participants took a dip in the Chesapeake Bay.
She has seen this before, thousands of brave souls lining her shore hell-bent on testing the strength of her winter waves. The honorable challengers show no fear on this particular January day; they arrogantly trample her beach, preparing to make the determined trip from shore to shock.
They come in all sizes, shapes, colors and dispositions. They don the weirdest attire, as Speedos, fake mustaches, water wings and shower caps rule the day's wardrobe.
The horde of plungers awaits the call. Few can fight the cold (with the air temperature at 36 and the water temperature a frigid 29) as the wind whips through the crowd with painful gusts.
Music is blaring in the background, smoke rises from pavilions filled with food and games. Thousands of half-naked guys and gals fill huge white tents that line the beach. Those tents block a view of thousands more spilling out of nearby parking lots lined with buses, campers and some good old-fashioned tailgating.
Deep in the heart of this feel-good festival stands Mike Waschak, shivering, waiting with all the rest. His mother stands behind him, covering his 4-foot-10 frame with a towel while rubbing his shoulders. The brave plungers all rush past him, headed to the beach where they will test the frigid waters of the Chesapeake.
Waschak will test it too, but for him the Maryland State Police Polar Bear Plunge is hardly a challenge. His entire life has been about meeting every obstacle and crushing it.
Waschak, 24, has Down syndrome and since the age of 9 he has been competing in the Special Olympics, and winning. In the fall it is soccer, in the winter it's bowling and in the spring he takes up swimming. He has too many medals to count and he is known as the second-fastest breaststroker in the state.
"Mike loves coming to this event; he smiles the entire time," said his father, Allan Waschak, the chairman and aquatics coordinator for the Howard County Special Olympics. "There is just a feeling of electricity in the air, a great atmosphere that provides a great opportunity."
"I learn sportsmanship and I really love bowling," Mike said, smiling through icy breaths as he readied for his fourth Polar Bear Plunge.
Plungapalooza '09 raised more than $2.5 million in total donations for the Maryland Special Olympics, with Sandy Point Beach filled with participants.
Cheering fans clamored to see local sports celebrities in attendance like Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, center Jason Brown and Gov. Martin O'Malley, who took a separate dip in the water shortly after the first scheduled plunge at 1 p.m.
Other celebrities took it even further, serving as super plungers and/or century plungers. Tom Schniedwind, vice president of Special Olympics Maryland, plunged 105 times in 24 hours and Ravens offensive lineman Adam Terry did the same.
"These guys are so dedicated to this cause," Allan Waschak said. "Adam [Terry] has been so great. He plunged all day and night but still took the time to spend the rest of the day here. Mike loved meeting him. It was a great thing."
Throughout the morning, personalities from WBAL-TV 11 News, WBAL 1090 AM and 98 Rock took the plunge on live television to raise funds for the cause. Almost 50 other plungers charged the icy water once every hour for 24 hours, including Orioles Hall of Famer B.J. Surhoff and Ravens super fan Rick Bowlus, aka Poetic Justice.
"It was so great to spend time with these people," Bowlus said. "We had a soldier who had been in an explosion in Iraq. He got sick last night and couldn't do all 24 plunges. B.J. [Surhoff] and I went in extra for him. He felt so bad but we all knew that his heart was in it. This is an experience that we will never forget."
Mike Waschak and his parents got to rub elbows with the local celebrity contingent in the VIP area. After the first wave of plungers had done their deed and screams could still be heard in the distance, the Waschak family followed Flacco, Brown and Gov. O'Malley toward the beach.
Everyone's eyes were trained on the famous few but out trudged Waschak -- shivering, determined to take part just like all the rest. It didn't matter if they noticed him. He was happy to be challenging the mighty Chesapeake Bay.
What did he have to say about the other 10,999 plungers on hand?
"I want to say thanks," he said, grinning from ear to ear.
Issue 134: February 2009