'Freezin' for a reason': Special Olympics plunge Saturday

When Michael Plappert first dipped his toes in the frigid Susquehanna River in the middle of winter, he was a little apprehensive, his mother said.

He was joining hundreds of volunteers, coaches, students from York College, police officers and others from the community who came to show their support and raise money for York County's Special Olympics program.

Plappert, a swimmer, was the first Special Olympics athlete from York County to participate in the Polar Bear Plunge — the program's biggest fundraiser.

He went in above his knees and came out, said Karen Plappert, showing fellow athletes that they could do it, too.

Now Michael Plappert has 28 people on his team, The Beach Boys and Friends, including friends, relatives, members of his church — Dover United Church of Christ —and six other athletes who are fellow swimmers and friends from his soccer team.

They will be taking the plunge this Saturday, Feb. 3. 

Bill, Michael and Karen Plappert attend the Special Olympics York County polar plunge each year. Michael Plappert, a Special Olympics swimmer, has been competing since he was eight years old.

The plunge: York County's plunge was started by two former Special Olympic coaches, Kathy Klingaman and the late Carrie (Ehrhart) Smeltzer, in 2008. 

They had seen other plunges, including one for the state's Area M Special Olympics program — serving Cumberland, Dauphin, Perry and northern York counties — and decided York County's program was in need of a bigger fundraiser.

"Smeltzer was our swim coach, and Michael was one of our swimmers," said Karen Plappert, who is on the management team for York County's program and coaches five sports with her husband, Bill.

Her son volunteered because he really liked working with Smeltzer, she said.

Now 35, living in Dover Township with his parents, Michael Plappert has been competing as a Special Olympics swimmer since he was 8 years old.

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Special Olympics York County: The county's Special Olympics program has 16 different sports available for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, starting at age 8.

About 350 athletes train for eight to 10 sessions and have local, sectional and state competitions throughout the year, Karen Plappert said.

Because Special Olympics York County does not receive any state or federal funding and has no paid positions, it's supported by fundraisers such as the plunge each year, she said.

The plunge started with about 600 participants and now, approaching its 10th year, draws crowds of 900 to 1,000, raising about $80,000 to $90,000 annually, she said.

Karen Plappert said SOYC's biggest team supporter each year is the Blue Line Plungers, made up of active and retired local law enforcement, in the lead so far this year with $5,305.

Not far behind is Michael Plappert's team, with $4,836. The team raised about $11,000 last year, and Karen Plappert said her son's goal this year is to beat that number. 

Day of the plunge: Plungers began fundraising about a month ago, she said, but a lot happens on the day of the plunge, too.

Many people bring additional donations, and an hour before plunging starts, family and friends can watch an athlete speaker, the national anthem and a costume contest. 

Those who want to be a part of the day without risking the cold dip can be a "chicken plunger," so named for being "too chicken to plunge" — earn a chicken hat and do the chicken dance as they cheer on their friends, SOYC's website states.

Opening ceremonies kick off at 10 a.m., and at noon plungers will go in waves of 40 at a time, spending up to two minutes in the water, which in the past reached temperatures of about 20 or 30 degrees, Karen Plappert said.

Heated tents will be ready for post-plunge, and the Wrightsville river rescue squad will be on hand, she said, forming a semi-circle in the water to keep participants from going out too far.

Plungers and supporters will meet next to the John Wright Restaurant at 234 N. Front St. in Wrightsville.

"We're #FreezinForAReason," reads SOYC's plunge registration website. "The cold we feel is temporary ... the positive impact we will have on the lives of local individuals with intellectual disabilities will last a lifetime."