2008-12-31 / Front Page

Hundreds expected to take the plunge for Special Olympics

By Sam Bari

Attired in traditional black and white complete with bow tie, tomorrow hundreds of supporters of the Special Olympics will impersonate penguins and dive into the icy waters of Mackerel Cove for the Penguin Plunge. The annual event for charity will take place at noon sharp on New Year's Day.

Last year more than $80,000 was raised, said Special Olympics Executive Director Michael McGovern.

"In today's economy, we will be very happy if we can match that amount," McGovern said. "Our supporters are very loyal. I expect they will dig deep as they always have, and come up with the funding that is needed for this worthy charity," he added. The annual Penguin Plunge began 33 years ago and is now a Jamestown tradition.

If all goes as planned, participants will collect pledges for the $80,000 goal. Anyone wishing to sponsor a "penguin" or contribute to the Special Olympics should go to the police station on Thursday morning or afternoon with their contributions. "That is where all the finances are handled," McGovern said.

A support group of two to three thousand is expected to attend the event and watch the penguin people take the frigid plunge. Every year, dozens of emergency medical personnel donate their services and stand by close to the water in case of hypothermia or frostbite, which has never happened according to Fire Chief Jim Bryer. Bryer has attended the event "for at least 25 years in one capacity or another," Bryer said. "Fortunately, we've never had a fatality or even a serious injury," he added.

Participants generally arrive early to secure a parking place near the beach where they can stay in heated vehicles to keep warm before taking the plunge. The crowd appears to materialize out of nowhere seconds before the countdown, when the penguin people pack together in a tight mass to waddle across the sand—penguin style with teeth chattering and much screaming, hollering and hysterical laughing as warm bodies meet frigid waters.

After a minute or less of sheer torture and agony, the crowd disappears back into warm vehicles as quickly as it gathered. There, warm dry clothes and a hot coffee or chocolate await slightly blue people who always vow to "never do it again . . . till next year," when they will be at the beach for the very good cause.

McGovern said there were a few who have been coming for nearly 30 years since the first event in 1976. "The whole thing started as a lark, on a dare," McGovern said, reflecting on the Jamestown's Penguin Plunge Club's meager beginnings. "Actually, we're not a club. The Penguin Plunge has always been an event. We should probably change our name," he said.

The Jamestown penguins rank among the ten oldest North American groups documented as winter swimmers, well behind the Coney Island Polar Bears who started in 1904, but far ahead of other Special Olympic Penguins who have participated in raising true cold cash.

McGovern, who was a special education teacher during the first decade of his penguin-like activities, now lives in North Kingstown and is executive director of Special Olympics Rhode Island. The only other original local penguin is John Kelly, who will join McGovern and the other penguins at the New Year's Day event.

The Special Olympics were founded by Eunice Kennedy Shriver in 1968 through her family's 1946 foundation in memory of her brother Joseph who was killed in World War II. The foundation was developed to improve the ways society relates to those with intellectual disabilities, like their sister Rosemary Kennedy. Special Olympics started with about 1,000 athletes from 26 states. It now reaches more than 2.5 million people with mental challenges in more than 165 countries.

McGovern encourages everyone attending or participating to stop at the police station where they can make donations, purchase T-shirts, pins and other memorabilia, as well as register to participate or to make pledges.

Anyone wanting details about the New Year's Day plunge, or to learn about the year round volunteer options can call Michael McGovern at 823-7411.

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