210107ind plunge

Sisters Molly McKenna, left, and Katie McKenna, both of Exeter, take a chilly dip at North Kingstown Town Beach to start the new year on Jan. 1. Like Roger Wheeler Beach in Narragansett, NK’s Town Beach saw smaller crowds than usual this year due to the lack of formal plunge events.

NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — Roger Wheeler State Beach was a lot quieter than usual this New Years’ Day, with the large crowds of plungers willing to briefly brave the cold ocean to raise money for the Special Olympics of Rhode Island replaced by couples, families and dog owners going for a quiet walk to ring in the first day of 2021.

However, that doesn’t mean the Penguin Plunge, which celebrated its 45th anniversary this year, isn’t happening. In fact, like many events since March, the annual tradition went virtual. Plungers sent in videos of themselves taking the cool dip in a variety of ways, while still raising over $65,000 for Special Olympics RI and its over 4,000 athletes across the Ocean State as of Tuesday. The virtual plunge will still go on through the rest of the month.

“I think we’re all definitely pleasantly surprised,” Special Olympics RI Director of Development Tracy Garabedian said. “Going in, we had no idea what to expect and how receptive people would be to it, but they really were. And I think the biggest thing is that people were understanding of why we had to do it this way, and it was good to see people come out to support Special Olympics and support our athletes in a different fashion this year. But overall, as an organization we’re very happy with the outcome.”

Without the beach for most plungers, participants used a variety of different creative ideas to get the chilly experience. In Coventry, over a dozen members of the Hopkins Hill Fire Department, which has participated in the plunge for the past 19 years, alongside their family members, ran through a stream of cold water poured on them from above via one of the department’s ladder trucks, which Garabedian referred to as one of her personal favorite videos.

“They had the hose that was rigged up the ladder, the water was coming down and they went under the stream of water,” Garabedian said. “So visually, theirs was really, really well done.”

Others, such as the Freemasons’ Grand Lodge of Rhode Island, took the plunge the more traditional way: Several members hopped in the water at Roger Wheeler State Beach, while others took to different beaches, lakes and ponds throughout the state.

“Most people found a body of water to plunge into,” Garabedian said. “A few people did it in their bathtub, a few people did an ice bucket challenge sort of thing, but I think for the most part people just found a body of water that was close to them like a lake or a pond, so they were good. Some people still dressed up and included their penguin gear (and) tried to make the fun out of it.”

Special Olympics RI had set a goal of $60,000 to be raised by this year’s Penguin Plunge, which Garabedian said is about half of what they would raise in a normal year. As of Tuesday, the group had already exceeded it by raising $65,000, a number Garabedian says she expects to rise by the end of the month. 

“It did really well,” Garabedian said. “Typically in a normal year we would raise $120,000, so it’s considerably off, but I think it’s indicative of the time that we’re in financially and with COVID, so we’re thrilled with those numbers and I do anticipate that they will go up a little bit higher through the end of the month.”

The Penguin Plunge will be active through the end of the month, with additional plunge videos and donations welcome.

“We know that COVID is still hitting people hard and we figured maybe not everyone could do it on Jan. 1 or last weekend, so we figured we would extend it and give people the chance to still participate at any point of time through the end of the month,” Garabedian said. 

She said she is thinking of putting together a virtual Zoom event on Jan. 31 which will feature a compilation of all of the plunge videos.

“We’ll invite all of the participants to come together on a Zoom and piece the videos together, play some music, maybe have a toast and just celebrate our success,” Garabedian said. 

To sign up to plunge virtually or make a donation to Special Olympics RI, visit their website, specialolympicsri.org

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