How to survive a polar bear plunge; Special Olympics of York County organizer shares tips

Anthony Ferrell of West York splashes his way into the near-freezing water of the Susquehanna River in Wrightsville in February 2012 for the Special Olympics York County Polar Bear Plunge. The plunge also featured a costume and dance contest. (Jeff Lautenberger -- For the Daily Record/Sunday News)

Anthony Ferrell of West York splashes his way into the near-freezing water of the Susquehanna River in Wrightsville in February 2012 for the Special Olympics York County Polar Bear Plunge. The plunge also featured a costume and dance contest. (Jeff Lautenberger — For the Daily Record/Sunday News)

During this polar vortex, it can be bone-chilling to walk across a parking lot while wearing three layers and a parka. So imagine dipping your body into the icy Susquehanna River on a day with single-digit temperatures.

On Feb. 15, more than 1,000 brave souls will take a dip in the river to support the Special Olympics of York County. This year marks the organization’s fifth Polar Bear Plunge — “Freezin’ for a Reason.”

Co-organizer Carrie Smeltzer, a health teacher at Red Lion Area High School, said the money raised helps pay for transportation to events, facility fees and merchandise for the 200 to 300 local athletes.

She said many Special Olympians participate in the plunge or volunteer.

“They just love to be around people,” Smeltzer said, adding that athletes know attendees are there to support them.

For those of you who’ll participate in a polar bear plunge this winter, Smeltzer shared these tips for how to muster up the courage to get in the water.

How to survive a polar bear plunge

1. Mind over matter: She said the energy of the day — generated by costume contests, dancing and adrenaline — puts participants in the right mindset to freeze their pants off. Feed off that energy. Many people keep in mind that by suffering in the cold for a few minutes, they’re helping others. That warm feeling on the inside is sure to mitigate some of those goosebumps.

2. Warmer in numbers: Sign up for a polar bear plunge with a team. So maybe team camaraderie won’t make you physically warmer, but at least you’ll know your friends, family or co-workers will be right there next to you.

3. Less is more: Smeltzer said many people wear costumes while plunging. If dressing up like Santa, Elvis or ballerina isn’t your thing, opt for a pair of shorts, a T-shirt and old sneakers. “Some people are crazy enough to wear a bathing suit,” she said. While you’re waiting for your turn, bundle up with layers and cover your extremities. She said the Special Olympics sets up two heated tents so plungers can change and stay warm.

4. You don’t have to go all in: Whether you submerge your feet or up to your neck is up to you.

If you go

What: Special Olympics of York County Polar Bear Plunge
When: Opening ceremony at 10 a.m. Feb. 15 (registration/sign-in runs 9:30 to 11:30 a.m., plunge begins at noon)
Where: DONSCO Incorporated, 124 N. Front St., Wrightsville
Details: Visit www.specialolympicsyorkcounty.org/plunge/
Cost: Optional donation

About Leigh Zaleski

I'm a health features reporter for the York Daily Record/Sunday News and healthy living blogger for No Sweat, York. Contact me with story ideas at lzaleski@ydr.com, 717-771-2101 or @leighzaleski on Twitter.
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