Good cause, good fun bring plungers to Jamestown
As the countdown clock wound methodically toward zero, the scantily clad crowd roared on the beach at Mackerel Cove. It may have been the New Year, or the numbing in my extremities, but the sense of community was powerful.
A festive atmosphere hovered over the scene, as revelers donned colorful duds, ate, listened to music and chatted with friends. To my left was a boy who looked about 10 years old. In front of me was an older man who was bragging about how he’d stood in the same spot for 18 years.
There was no avoiding the cold, and the two minutes before the dip provided ample time for my brother, Will, and I to question exactly what it was that we were doing. When the clock reached zero, the group dashed toward the water.
But it wasn’t quite a sprint – it was more like a stiff jog accompanied by uninterrupted screaming.
The water hit my toes about 20 feet before I was finally knee deep, and the frigid sensation worked its way up my body, one labored step at a time.
I can’t exactly call that sensation complete numbness; instead, I’d describe it more as beyond any cold I’ve ever felt. Now knee-deep in the water, my heart slammed in my chest, and when I was finally up to my thighs, I made an ugly lunge and submerged myself. For the two or three seconds that I was fully underwater, there were no giant penguins, no champagne bottles and no other plungers.
There was only icy silence.
When I kicked to my feet, the first thing I felt was the cold air sticking to my head and chest.
Though there were dozens of people within 20 feet of me, I staggered toward the shore in what felt like an exceedingly solitary moment. My head throbbed at the temples as I finally located my brother – and my towel – on shore.
The event, which raised approximately $50,000 for the R.I. Special Olympics last year, raised more than $60,000 this year, according to Tracy Garabedian, director of event management for the organization.
Derek Keene, one of about 20 Smithfield and Woonsocket firefighters who took the plunge, walked down the street in a fullbody penguin suit and a Boston Red Sox hat. What started as an initiation for rookies has developed into a tradition, and a group of firefighters has now done the plunge for eight consecutive years. Keene also wore a red bowtie, signifying his role as one of four excelsiors who are selected every year to head fundraising and serve as ambassadors for the event.
He said the opportunity to help others is what powers the event, and he’s noticed that plenty of people are still willing to help.
“Even in the economic status that this country is in, people are still willing to give to Special Olympics Rhode Island,” he said.
Keene also said that this year, the decision was made to include on-site fundraising. In the past, he said, people would pledge beforehand and sometimes forget the meaning of the event.
“We had a lot of people who could come and just plunge who forgot about the reason why we do it,” he said, adding that on-site donors were “more than generous” this year.
Ryan Seoman, 20, of North Smithfield felt the large group that gathered was a great sign of community.
“It’s a charity event, you have fun,” he said. “There’s a lot of good people down here. It’s for a good cause, that’s all you have to know.”
When asked if he was nervous, he said no – and added that he had just enlisted in the Navy.
With such a large gathering of thrill seekers, it’s critical to maintain order and ensure participant safety.
Anita Godena worked the event as a member of Jamestown’s Fire Department. She and several others stayed in the water to ensure that every participant returned to land safely. Five suited rescue workers stayed calm as hundreds of revelers dashed toward them.
When asked the purpose of the suit she was wearing, she said, “It’s a survival suit.”
I suddenly realized I was standing in a bathing suit on the beach in January.
I wondered – did she think we were all crazy?
“Yes,” she said.
Johnston police officer Phil Viens stood in a bathing suit, fresh out of the water and wrapped in a towel. Fifteen years ago, he organized a motorcycle race for Special Olympics and has been involved ever since.
He was cold, he said, but spoke warmly of his motivation to dip.
“It’s the athletes themselves,” he said. “It’s their expression when you hang medals at events.”
Terry Vazquez, who lives in Jamestown, said he didn’t take the plunge until he was in his fifties.
So why start now? “It’s a fun, fun day,” he said.