There wasn’t a speck of sunlight in the sky as the frigid February wind whistled through the empty beach at Sandy Point State Park outside Annapolis, Maryland. The beach and surrounding vendor tents were quiet and empty, but they would soon be filled with thousands of kids, teachers and administrative staff taking the Cool Schools Plunge to raise money for Special Olympics Maryland.
After the Cool Schools Plunge on February 2, there were two more days of cold-water dipping, including the police plunge, corporate plunge and the Maryland plunge. In recent years, plunges were spread further apart to abide by the social distancing guidelines put in place by the COVID-19 pandemic, and it was later in the winter. The Cool Schools Plunge was at full capacity for the first time since 2019, and the anticipation of the back-to-normal event made for a bigger spectacle. It is the largest Cool Schools Plunge in Maryland’s history with 5,682 students. The second largest involvement with the Cool Schools Plunge came in 2020, with 4,475 participants.
Since the event started in 2010, Special Olympics Maryland has seen 150 schools participate and $3.6 million raised.
“The Cool Schools Plunge has grown tremendously over the past 13 years, and 2023 was our biggest year yet,” says Jessie Hayes, vice president of development for Special Olympics Maryland. “We had a record number of Cool Schools plungers, and collectively, they broke the Cool Schools single year fundraising record, raising upwards of $680,000. Each of the 86 schools that plunged exemplify the mission, vision and values of Special Olympics Maryland and are creating a Unified generation. We are proud and excited for the future of this event and hope that new schools get involved in 2024.”
A big reason why the Cool Schools Plunge has become so popular is because of Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools®. It is a program involving pre-K through university and focuses on inclusivity in the school space. The schools provide resources like Special Olympics Unified Sports®—a program that allows individuals with and without intellectual disabilities to train and compete on the same sports team—inclusive youth leadership and whole school engagement.
Marianne Shultz first got involved with Special Olympics Maryland as a coach. Eventually, she earned a position with Anne Arundel County Public Schools as the athletic liaison who oversees all Unified Sports and Unified Champion Schools. She says the reach of Unified Sports has grown significantly, from about five students to 40 or more per school today. “It’s important because inclusion is such a vital part of everyday activities to be included with whichever events are going on,” Shultz says. “It’s so important to feel like you belong.”
And when it comes to the Cool Schools Plunge, Shultz loves the way it challenges the students. She also enjoys watching the kids raise money and compete in something that’s off the field or court. “The excitement, the thrill, smiling from ear to ear, competing for something that’s for a great cause,” she says.
Ericka Gannon works as a coordinator for Young Athletes in Anne Arundel County, and having been involved with the movement for a decade, she says it’s the people and relationships that got her hooked. “I just know how wonderful the group is, and I love to support people and make them better,” Gannon says.
If anyone ever questions Gannon’s commitment to Special Olympics, they shouldn’t. A week prior to the Cool Schools Plunge, she participated in the Super Plunge, an event that also raises money for the organization. But it’s not just any plunge: in this case, the participant takes a dip in the water every hour for 24 hours straight. “It’s not that cold. Actually, it is,” she says, laughing.
At least it’s cold for a cause: helping to make everyday life for Special Olympics Maryland athletes more inclusive.