Time To Take The Plunge: Seaside Heights Polar Bear Plunge Tops $1 Million In Donations

Large scale event draws thousands, raises funds for Special Olympics


Cold, wet, winter sand gathers around bare feet, and then, the final moments: the countdown.

Suddenly, what sounds like a battle cry erupts from the beach, and thousands charge into the ocean (some, though, charge more timidly than others).

It's February. The Atlantic Ocean is approximately 44 degrees.

And it's one of the more crowded beach days of the year for Seaside Heights.

has already raised $1.065 million, which is more than last year, the day before the event. Thousands don swim suits and costumes and splash around, while tens of thousands more gawk from the boardwalk, or stand nearby with warm towels to throw around their shivering brethren.

The day has no equal, said Thomas McGovern, one of the top fundraisers from team Jack Frost and Ginger — a team comprised entirely of friends and family.

"Part of the allure of being a Plunger is that it really is a crazy thing to do, when you step back and look at it," McGovern said. "It takes a certain kind of whacko to jump in the icy Atlantic in February."

He proudly counts himself among those whackos, having bested his fundraising record after weeks of taking donations from friends and family. Team Jack Frost and Ginger was the fifth highest fundraising team as of Friday morning. The charity of the Special Olympics of New Jersey is a real motivator, McGovern said.

"The Special Olympics is a beautiful, joyous event that carries no other feeling but accomplishment and building self confidence for such a great population of contestants," McGovern said.

Though the plunge is at 1 p.m. Saturday, the event is all morning and into the night. The boardwalk pizza ovens are fired up and the bars are thick with crowds as the day goes from a morning of anticipation, to the climax of the rush into the ocean, the shock and recovery from the cold waters, and the hours of camaraderie that follow.

"When the signal comes down to go, something out of a battle scene from Braveheart breaks out. Everyone charges the water with reckless abandon, and just as fast they ran in, 99 percent hightail it right back out," McGovern said. "I am one of the 99 percent that run back out."

Friends manage to find friends and go right back in, pose for pictures, give some high fives, and bask in a chilly, wet sense of accomplishment.

Suzanne DeBartolo is an organizer for the largest team: Kool Nutz. There's 112 signed up. Six years ago the "team" was just her and a co-organizer, Tom, raising $200.

"Then 2008 we had 14 people and $2,500. Then 2009, 54 people and $9,000.  In 2010, around 100 people raising $21,000...This year the largest team yet of 112 people raising an estimate of $25,000," DeBartolo said.

How has she managed to stay warm all these years?

"When you have a parent come up and hug you to thank you for helping raise money for their kid, that is all you need to stay warm that day," she said. "The energy of the crowd is so amazing that you don't even feel the cold."

McGovern credited a combination of liquid courage and nearby towels and a change of clothes as practical ways to recover from the chill.

"Your body is in a slight state of shock after coming out, and the quicker you can get dry, the better. Having to fumble around and look for your towel or robe while soaked in 38 degree water will make seconds seem like minutes, so have everything laid out ready to go," McGovern said. 

However, he said he doesn't really think there is any strategy that truly works.

"I stocked up on those individual hand warmers this year to hold onto and have in my pockets and socks for the first time, and I think they will be a welcome addition to my plunge repertoire," McGovern said.

As both teams have grown over the years, so has the fun. The post-plunge party lasts for hours.

"I must admit, it is the funnest event of the year. As soon as we get back to our home base of Captain Hooks I have everyone asking me what are we doing next year," DeBartolo said.

Is a full-on, completely submerged dive into the ocean necessary? Or can you get away with a bit of an ankle-deep tip-toe in?

"Anyone who stays in for longer than just a dip has my respect, because my usual routine does not include any type of backstroke," McGovern said, "more a 40 yard dash."

DeBartolo said Kool Nutz members do their best to live up to their misspelled team name.

"Our team likes to make sure they do a nice long dip in the ocean," she said. "Last year many of us went in a few times!"

A mild winter is driving the water temperature up to a possible 44 degrees. The air temperature is a windy forecast of 46 degrees.

For some, the colder the better. McGovern though said the cold is a reminder of summer's greatness.

"I am the kind of guy who cowers away from that first little bit of cold water that comes out of the spout every time you take a shower, so I am no fan of the cold like some people are, but there is something about jumping in the ocean at this time of the year that I love," he said.

"I spend as much time on the beach as possible during the summer, so to see the place in this setting makes those beautiful, 90 degree days in the sand that much sweeter."


Editor's Note: Patch will be on the boardwalk snapping plungers' pictures and offering some hot coffee, and (full disclosure!) Catherine Galioto will be bringing her warmest towel to retreat into, after taking the plunge with team Kool Nutz this year.


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