Desire to ‘Plunge’ still burns after two decades

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REHOBOTH BEACH – Randy Lee remembers to this day the shivering shock that he and other brave souls from the Delaware State Fire Marshal’s Office experienced when they participated in their first Lewes Polar Bear Plunge.

“The first year we did it was 1995: the air temperature was 25 degrees; the water temperature was 32 and the wind chill was like 14 below (zero),” said Mr. Lee. “They said that is the coldest it has been.”

Back then, the plunge into the Atlantic Ocean was held in Lewes.

Rehoboth Beach and its famed Boardwalk has since become the staging venue for the event, which has evolved into a major weekend spectacle, drawing several thousand “Polar Bears” and tens of thousands of people in support roles – some accompanied by their beloved pets – to the Special Olympics Delaware’s largest fundraiser.

This year’s event, set for Sunday, Feb. 1, will mark a milestone 20th Polar Bear Plunge for Mr. Lee, a 62-year-old resident of Laurel who retired at the end of 2013 after 30 years with the State Fire Marshal’s Office, including 11 as Chief Deputy.

Fire Marshal’s Office connections with the Police Academy lured Mr. Lee into the chilly water.

“One of the guys at our office went to the Police Academy and in the Police Academy they were introduced to Special Olympics through the law enforcement. He said, ‘You know, we’ve got to do this Polar Bear Plunge for Special Olympics in February.’ I said, ‘OK, that sounds good. So we signed up,’” said Mr. Lee. “When we got there, we said, ‘What are we doing?’ It was like: ‘We’re doing this to raise money for Special Olympics, so we’re going to do this.’ And it was cold. We said if we can do it this time it doesn’t matter, nothing can be any worse than this. It was cold that day.”

Collectively, Delaware law enforcement is a huge supporter of Special Olympics Delaware and Mr. Lee has participated in the annual Law Enforcement Torch Run, staged in conjunction with the opening of the Special Olympics Summer Games.

Money raised from these events support Special Olympics Delaware’s year-round program of sports training, athletic competition and related programs for over 3,700 children and adults with intellectual disabilities.

Taking the annual chilly dip in the Atlantic warms the heart of participants, Mr. Lee says.

“It’s a great group of people that we raising money for,” said Mr. Lee. “The athletes are outstanding. They work harder than anybody. You can talk about all of these professional athletes all you want. Nobody works harder than these Special Olympians do to perfect their skills and their game. They do an outstanding job.”

Mr. Lee’s continuous run of Polar Bear Plunges was interrupted once, due to a death in the family.

While there is plenty of support on land over the years, Mr. Lee said he has not had a great deal of luck enticing others to join him.

“Everybody says that they’ll just be a moral support for us – holding towel or the robe,” said Mr. Lee, noting one guy who donates money tells him to “take that money and put it in your pocket. That’s the closest I’m going to get to the water.”

But this year, several others will join him in taking the plunge, including his daughter and grand-daughter.

“We have a good crowd when we go down to the beach. We see people that we see every year,” said Mr. Lee. “There is a nice party afterwards at the Convention Center. When we get done with the plunge, I take a group of people and we go to Grotto’s at Bethany beach and have a little get-together.”

So on Lewes Polar Plunge Sunday – which also happens to be the day the Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots tee it up in something called the Super Bowl – Mr. Lee will take the plunge for the 20th time. He’ll be wearing his bathing suit, sneakers and sweatshirt – and will remember to take off his sneakers last, just before plunging – advice he learned the hard way after his first plunge back in 1995.

“The first year, we went to the after plunge party,” said Mr. Lee. “There was this state policeman who had been doing it, and we told him about how cold our feet got standing on the sand. He said the last thing to do is take your shoes off. Standing on that cold sand is like standing on a block of ice. When your feet get cold, it’s bad. We were like dancing around and wondering how do people do this? And then we found out we weren’t doing it right. That was the biggest thing we learned. But I didn’t find this out until after we got done!”

News Editor Glenn Rolfe can be reached at grolfe@newszap.com

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