Time to take the plunge

Published 7:51 pm Friday, January 28, 2011

Franklin residents Pat Smith, right, and son Ethan have participated in the Polar Plunge for seven years. Ethan participates in bowling, swimming and volleyball with the Suffolk Area 29 Special Olympics.

One of Pat Smith’s co-workers once asked her if she was crazy for participating in the Special Olympics Polar Plunge.

But to Smith, the annual early-February dive into the Atlantic Ocean wearing nothing but a swimsuit is all for a good cause — and because of her son, Ethan.

Since 1993, more than 28,000 plungers have raised more than $5.5 million for Special Olympics Virginia, which provides sports training and athletic competition for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. This year’s Plunge will be held on Feb. 5.

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“We’ve been in it about seven years,” Smith said of the Special Olympics.

Ethan Smith, a polite, dark-haired 17-year-old, has autism. His mother got him involved in Special Olympics for the socialization and physical fitness opportunities it presented.

“He’s excelled in socialization,” she said. “It’s really helped him socially tremendously.”

Ethan participates in bowling, swimming and golf with the Suffolk Area 29 Special Olympics.

“He looks forward to every sport, every season,” said Smith, a Franklin resident. “He’s ready to go.”

Special Olympics athletes have the chance to compete in championships set up just like the Olympic Games — complete with medals, opening ceremonies and closing ceremonies.

The big championships are what all the athletes strive toward, Smith said.

“It’s like they won,” she said. “They did the big thing. They won a gold. That’s what they’ve worked toward and practiced for.”

Special Olympics coaches are all-volunteer, and everything is run on donations. Money raised by Suffolk-area athletes comes back to the group in the form of equipment, uniforms and lodging at events.

“It’s just different things we need to purchase for the kids to be able to play,” Smith said.

When Smith initially heard about the Polar Plunge, she was willing to do anything to help raise money for Special Olympics.

“The water is cold,” she said. “Last year was about the worst year I’ve been involved in. It was sleeting. It was snowing. It was cold.”

Ethan agreed.

“It was a little cold,” he said. But, he added, “I really enjoy it. I don’t mind the cold.”

The Polar Plunge isn’t the only cool thing at the oceanfront that weekend, though.

The event kicks off the night before this year with the Pre-Plunge Party, held Feb. 4. Musical entertainment and concessions will be offered to all ages.

The morning of the event, the Polar Plunge 5K will draw runners from across the area. Children under 10 who raised at least $50 can take part in the Pee-Wee Plunge, where they jump into a children’s pool lightly sprinkled with ice and rubber ducks.

“It’s not just going in the ocean and freezing,” Smith said. “It’s a lot of fun that day.”

More than 3,400 thrill-seekers are expected to brave the water this year. To be among them, participants need to raise at least $100.

To find out more about the Plunge or to register, visit www.polarplunge.com.