The annual Maryland State Police Polar Bear Plunge, the chief fundraiser for Special Olympics Maryland (SOMD), has grown over its 17 years to become one of the largest Plunge events in the country as well as the largest special event in Maryland.
Prior to the January 2012 plunge, Baltimore’s WBAL-TV reported the event has enticed “more than 55,000” plungers in its history and “raised a cumulative total of $16 million.” Those totals rose after the 2012 plunge, which collected more than $2.5 million and drew14,000 participants.
Within those numbers lays a contingent of MSBA members from the Young Lawyers Section and the Public Awareness Committee who have plunged for the last six years as the festival snowballed into a dominant force.
Yet for several MSBA members, the Plunge stays to one day of the year, and SOMD events occupy the rest of their calendar.
“The Plunge is an individual challenge, a quick, physical challenge,” says Jen Prizeman, an attorney at Gibbs and Haller who has volunteered with SOMD and participated in the Polar Bear Plunge since 2011. “Volunteering [with SOMD] is totally different. It’s more time and labor intensive for me.”
SOMD volunteers staff tournaments throughout the year. Prizeman, for example, worked the aquatic and the track and field events for an Anne Arundel Special Olympics event at the Naval Academy. Along with scoring both events, Prizeman timed swimmers and set up hurdles. The event ran for two days.
SOMD tournaments operate on a local level, and the sports range from basketball to cycling, bocce ball to snowshoeing. On a larger scale, SOMD also produces its annual Summer Games at Towson University. There, athletes compete in numerous events, take part in the ceremonious torch lighting, and march into the stadium with other athletes from their county.
“It is all about the athletes – their smiles and their enthusiasm,” says Katrina J. Dennis, a member of the SOMD Board of Directors and an attorney at Kramon & Graham, P.A. “These athletes have this attitude of, ‘I want to win, but if I can’t, that’s OK.’ People can learn a lot from that.”
SOMD serves 10,000 athletes in Maryland. The athletes are children – age eight and above – and adults with “intellectual disabilities, a cognitive delay, or a closely related developmental disability,” according to SOMD. This includes athletes with autism and a combination deaf-blindness, as well as others.
“These are amazing, determined athletes,” says Judson Arnold, who has volunteered with Special Olympic programs in Virginia and Georgia in the past; he now volunteers in state and works for the Maryland Office of the Public Defender. “They have an incredible outlook on life. They are competitive, but in the end, for them, it is about how you compete – athletes pride themselves on competing.”
SOMD events are free to the athletes, though the average cost per athlete, according to the organization, is $500 for one sport, and many athletes perform multiple sports.
The price behind this is paid almost exclusively through the Polar Bear Plunge.
“Honestly, the Plunge funds are going to an amazing cause,” says Prizeman. “I’ve seen it firsthand.”
For Dennis, who has served SOMD since 2007 and volunteers at many different events, including the Summer Games, the popularity of the Plunge testifies to the remarkable work of Maryland’s disabled athletes.
“[The Plunge] shows that these athletes are having an impact on people, on their lives,” she says.