By Julie Oltmann
For seventh-grader Oliver Clark, the MSP Polar Bear Plunge has become a tradition that brings his family closer together each year. Between his team, Team Sutton, and his leadership at Baltimore’s Calvert School to fundraise as part of the Cool Schools Plunge, Oliver’s efforts have raised nearly $100,000 for Special Olympics Maryland in the past eight years. But for Oliver, it’s become much more than simply raising money or jumping into the frigid Chesapeake Bay – he and his family have started something bigger.
So why does he do it? What could possibly motivate someone to jump into freezing water in the middle of January? It’s all for Sutton, Oliver will tell you proudly. Fifteen-year-old Sutton Clark was born prematurely and faced health challenges from day one. Today, she’s a high schooler at St. Elizabeth School in Baltimore, where a transition program will help her explore her college or work options after receiving her diploma. She’s a swimmer who has participated in Special Olympics, even winning a gold medal at the organization’s Summer Games. “She keeps the most positive attitude,” Oliver said. “We are the luckiest people in the world to have a kind, gentle and loving person like Sutton in our lives.”
Oliver began plunging at an early age. His grandfather, an Annapolis resident, participated in the event long before Sutton was born, and in 2010, when Oliver was just 5 years old, parents Ali and Jonathan took him to Sandy Point State Park to watch. And even in that first year, Oliver made it count. He went completely underwater. “When he came back out on my husband’s shoulders, I could just see it in his face,” Ali said. “He loved every second of it.” Oliver was hooked from that day on.
Now in his eighth year as a plunger, Oliver has become a leader among his friends, family and peers. As part of Calvert School’s seventh-grade council, he’s responsible for organizing many of the school’s fundraising initiatives and takes the lead on Plunge efforts. Each November, the school has a kick-off assembly to introduce the event and encourage registration. And this year, the Clarks have taken the Cool Schools Plunge to a new level in the name of inclusion. While St. Elizabeth is just a mile from Calvert School, there hadn’t been a relationship between the two. The Clarks introduced the idea of a buddy system, and the school administrations ran with it. Fifteen Calvert School seventh-graders have buddied up with 16 St. Elizabeth students and work together to fundraise and promote the event. Then, on January 24, they’ll plunge together in an inclusive experience that embodies the true meaning of the annual event.
“When Sutton won a gold medal in Special Olympics, I think all of us felt the atmosphere and it was a really great time for our family,” Oliver said. “That really sparked me raising money for the Polar Bear Plunge.”