When Arnold resident Donna Taylor did the Super Plunge — charging into the frigid Chesapeake Bay 24 times in 24 hours — for her 11th time in 2017, she was armed with a cane.
“I had hip replacement surgery almost immediately after the Plunge,” Taylor said. “It’s that important for us to compete. We consider it to be a huge challenge, and it’s symbolic of the challenges the Special Olympics athletes face.”
Taylor initially did the Polar Bear Plunge because “it seemed like a fun thing to do,” but once she met some of the Special Olympics athletes, she wanted to do more, and she joined the team of Super Plungers. Altogether, she has done the Plunge for 22 years.
Joining her this year are about 40 people including McKenna Chadwick, a 14-year-old from Severna Park who has been around the Plunge since she was a child. When she rushes into the bay this year from January 19 to January 20, McKenna will become a Super Plunger just like her dad, Ray, and her brothers, Zach and Maxx, before her. But she will also brave the elements for another reason: to honor Jimmy Myrick, the former Special Olympics Maryland athlete who lost his battle with leukemia in 2016.
A friend of Myrick since she was 2 or 3, McKenna remembers teaching him how to hula-hoop. “Jimmy was honestly the person who always had this happy aura around him,” she said, “and everyone there always loved to be around him because he made everyone else happy.”
Myrick was also one of three original Super Plungers in 2004 along with Maryland State Police spokesman Greg Shipley and Tom Schniedwind, who was the senior vice president for sports marketing at Special Olympics Maryland.
Not only did that event raise awareness, according to Shipley, but WBAL TV’s coverage, provided by reporter Rob Roblin, ultimately led to a partnership with the Hearst Corporation. WBAL TV, WBAL AM and 98 Rock became media partners. “They made it seem like it was cool,” Ray Chadwick said of WBAL and 98 Rock. “They helped us get our message about acceptance out there and they’ve been phenomenal.”
“After that first Super Plunge, we also received an unexpected response from many people who wanted to know how they could join us for the next Super Plunge,” Shipley said. “We had not been planning a second one, but Tom was never one to ignore an opportunity to expand fundraising opportunities, so the second annual Super Plunge was quickly announced and the event has continued ever since.”
Today, the Super Plunge boasts special themes, a tented village with a men’s and women’s area, a common room housing 98 Rock, a TV, food buffet, hair salon, massage studio, tattoo parlor, sauna, a DJ and a dance floor.
The team has included Special Olympics Maryland athletes and their families, sheriff’s deputies, news anchors and Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman. Each Super Plunger raises at least $10,000 although many of the members exceed that mark. Last year alone, the team accounted for $275,000.
Ray Chadwick, who previously served on the board of directors for Special Olympics Maryland, estimates that his family has raised about $70,000 over the years. Taylor humbly put her tally at over $200,000.
“It’s a competition,” Taylor said. “No question, everyone wants to be at the top of the leaderboard. There is some satisfaction about being the top fundraiser, but in the end, it all goes to the same place.”
Benefitting from those funds are people like Michael Heup, who is both a Special Olympics athlete and a Super Plunger. While he has been preparing to compete in the Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle this July, he also participated this year in soccer, basketball, track and field, tennis and snowshoe. He called the Super Plunge “a real honor.”
“I feel very proud to be an ambassador for my fellow athletes and fellow Super Plungers when we get to go out and build excitement and support for our plunge and all of the other plunges during the week,” said Heup, who was invited by Annapolis Sam’s Club General Manager Scott Lewis to do the Plunge six years ago. “It makes me feel good as an athlete to feel all of the love and excitement that the Super Plungers have for us.”
Family is the key word for all involved. The Chadwicks know that better than anyone, with Ray, Zach and Maxx as former Super Plungers, with McKenna soon to become one herself, and Ray’s other daughter, Natalee, helping with fundraising.
“We’re all in this together,” McKenna said. “People run out holding hands, little kids are on the side with signs for their brothers and sisters and dad involved, they give them towels after they get out of the water and jump in the hot tub with them. It’s really fun.”
While the weather isn’t always “fun,” Super Plungers don’t back down from harsh conditions.
Donny Boyd, a Montgomery County firefighter and bomb technician, has served as team captain for the last seven years and been on the team for 10 years. As he prepares to take the plunge 24 times with his daughter Caroline, he recalled one time, maybe three years ago, in which the weather was unfavorable.
“At 5:00am, the winds shifted and there were 3-foot seas that threw the ice on the shore, which made it kind of dangerous but also exciting,” said Boyd, who originally got involved because his friend’s child has Downs syndrome. “The reward for the athletes is far more powerful than the coldness.”
Ray Chadwick said it was maybe 2004 that was the worst. “We had a cold spell, and we had to literally break through a layer of ice. It wasn’t 33-degree water. It was ice at your legs.”
Taylor said that breaking the ice is always a challenge, but last year presented a different obstacle. “There was a period of cold, nasty rain,” she said. “It’s very demoralizing. I know it sounds funny because you’re running into water, but it’s not fun to get cold and wet before you get cold and wet.”
McKenna Chadwick is soaking up the advice of her family members so she can be prepared regardless of the weather.
“They told me to drink a lot of water because the water is very salty and cold,” she said. “It’s very tiring. My dad just bought me water shoes.”
The Chadwicks posted 1,200 flyers in their Shipley’s Choice community, and they will hold a fundraiser at Gina’s Cantina in Millersville on January 14 from 4:00pm to 8:00pm. Attendees will enjoy live music by Fran Scuderi, raffles, and maybe a silent auction, with Gina’s donating a percentage of the proceeds.
“Gina is such a nice lady and cool person, and she is so generous to let us do this,” Ray Chadwick said. “We hope we have a great turnout.”
The 2018 Super Plunge will be held on Friday, January 19, and Saturday, January 20 - one week earlier than the Polar Bear Plunge. To support the super plungers as individuals or as a team, or to make a general donation, go to www.plungemd.com and click the “Donate” link.
Regardless of each person’s reason for being a Super Plunger, they all see the impact.
“It is a great feeling to do something hard and feel like you are with other people who are there for you,” Heup said. “I like for people to see that the athletes will do the Super Plunge along with the people who have worked hard to raise all of that money. They get a chance to see we never give up.”
Added Shipley, “I am grateful to each dedicated Super Plunger who carries on the commitment we felt that first year when it was snowing and the bay was full of ice and slush. Whether you are jumping in the bay in January 24 times, or just once, the impact you are having on the athletes of Special Olympics Maryland is real and life-changing.”