- Associated Press - Saturday, February 25, 2017

SEASIDE HEIGHTS, N.J. (AP) - Unseasonably mild temperatures at the Jersey shore didn’t faze or diminish the enthusiasm of thousands of people who willingly plunged into the chilly Atlantic Ocean on Saturday as part of a fundraiser for the Special Olympics.

Organizers said temperatures were near the mid-50s and the water temperature was about 44 degrees when participants in the 24th annual Polar Bear Plunge first entered the water in Seaside Heights. Many people stayed in the water for just a brief time, but others chose to hang out for a little longer and enjoy the comradery of their fellow polar bears.

“Yeah it’s cold, even if it feels more like a spring day than a winter day,” said Mark Venice, 26, of Toms River, who said this was his fourth plunge at Seaside Heights. “But besides raising funds for Special Olympics, you also get to meet some really good people. It’s fun to see people enjoying themselves for a good cause instead of arguing about politics or whatever else they can think to scream about.”

Many of the estimated 6,700 participants formed teams to help boost their fundraising possibilities, and most came dressed in costumes, such as Vikings, polar bears and even Santa Claus. Others waved American flags as they ran up and down the beach, helping to energize the crowds.

Some participants said the weather conditions were much better than in previous years, but noted that the cold water still made an impact.

“You jump in and a part of you freezes in place,” Shawn Simpkins, 28, of Hamilton, told NJ.com. “It’s like a battle cry going in.”

Organizers were hoping to raise more than the record-setting $1.7 million the event generated last year. Plungers must raise at least $100 to participate, but many raise much more than that, officials said.

Kevin Burke, who chaired the event, said people need to know “there’s programs out there for young children, young adults with developmental disabilities.”

The Special Olympics serves more than 25,000 athletes in New Jersey.

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