SEASIDE HEIGHTS – Each February, the Polar Bear Plunge tests the resolve of thousands of brave plungers from around the Garden State.
This year’s 26th annual NJ Polar Bear Plunge was no exception as thousands of plungers ran, jumped or waded their way into some chilly waves as a means to support a good cause. That cause was the Special Olympics New Jersey. The plunge site in Seaside Heights draws one of the largest crowds for this charity.
They came out in all shapes and sizes, ages and attire to dip more than their toe into the 41-degree water along the borough ocean front. Some plunged as members of teams, organizations, and businesses, while others went solo.
As of Feb. 22, one day before the plunge, $1,784,348 had been raised toward the event’s goal of $2,000,000. That figure would dramatically rise during event day. Last year, 7,100 plungers entered the surf raising $2.2 million.
Special Olympics New Jersey provides year-round sports training, competition, leadership opportunities and health screenings to more than 25,000 athletes from funds collected from the plunges like the one held in Seaside Heights. According to the organization’s website, all of these programs and services are always free thanks to fundraising events.
While bathing trunks, bikinis and various style swim suits were worn during the event, some plungers took the occasion to be a bit more creative with a variety of costumes to plunge in.
The Herrera family of West New York donned shark hats and special T-shirts as this year’s costume theme. This marked their seventh plunge. “It is a good cause and we have fun doing this,” Daddy Shark Joey Herrera said. The team sang the popular song “Baby Shark” to get prepared for the plunge.
Kelsey Deeg, of Oradell, enjoyed her third plunge. “I’m a social worker who works with special needs adults.”
Deeg plunged with her boyfriend and she met John Sesso, Toms River who was also not with a team. Sesso sported all yellow attire from his fedora hat to his socks and shoes. “This is my first year. I’m doing this as a way to give back and for my late brother’s god child.”
Members of the Ice Slayers (made up of mostly EMTs from around Ocean County) took their sixth plunge. The 10-member team featured members who had plunged together for six years.
“I’ve done this for 18 years,” said Ron Parry of Toms River. “I’ve done it when it was held in Point Pleasant, here in Seaside Heights and when it was held in Long Branch after Superstorm Sandy.”
Brian Gunnigle, Bayville, said that the plunge is not just a team event but a family one as well. Members of his family joined the team and entered the icy surf. “We all used to work together at Alert Ambulance in Lakewood. My son has cerebral palsy so this is also personal for me.”
Brian P. Smith, a former Toms River resident who currently resides in the Philadelphia suburb of Folcroft Pa. made a special trip out to join his fellow EMT friends for the activity.
“As a group we raised $1,931 this year,” Smith said as he held a white plunger with a mini polar bear attached to the top of it. Smith made the plunger which is now a new tradition for the team. The holder of it is the team member who has raised the most money toward the total. “I will hold onto it until the next year.”
This marked the first year for team members Anastasia Parry, 8, and Kayleigh McDonough, Bayville.
“I’ve got my water shoes on and I’m ready,” Anastasia said with a smile.
Team Loreal CPD assembled outside of Bobbers Restaurant in Seaside Heights where they had breakfast. They wore their bright blue team hoodies for a group shot outside the eatery.
Chris Drudy, Hamilton, said this would be the second year for the 12-member team which had Loreal as a sponsor. “I’ve done it in previous years as Special Olympics is a great cause.”