201224ind Plunge

Hundreds of participants ran down the sand at Roger Wheeler State Beach in Narragansett for the 2019 Penguin Plunge for Special Olympics Rhode Island. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, this year’s event will be held virtually.

While many people will be glad to see 2020 go and will welcome 2021 with open arms, especially as vaccinations look to be the light at the end of the dark tunnel that has been the COVID-19 pandemic, the reality for now  is that the pandemic will carry over into the new year and, with it, the cancellation and reconfiguration of more annual traditions continues. This year the area’s three main polar plunges, in which divers brave freezing cold water on New Year’s Day for a quick dive to raise money for a variety of charities, are all going digital.

“When we started planning for the plunge back in August (and) September, we knew it was important to offer an in-person plunge of some sort. We knew it would have to be different and very modified from years past,” director of development Tracy Garabedian of Special Olympics Rhode Island, which runs the popular Penguin Plunge at Roger Wheeler State Park in Narragansett, said. “As we worked on a plan to submit to DEM and the DOH, it became clear to us that the in-person plunge just wasn’t going to work. With all the COVID protocols that would have had to be in place, the fun and excitement of the plunge would have been completely stripped away.”

As the number of cases in Rhode Island quickly began to rise, and the state briefly earned the dubious distinction of having the worst infection rate in the country, Garabedian said the Special Olympics knew they couldn’t take any chances and would have to change the layout of the event by turning it into an all-remote event.

“I’m hearing that most people plan to do their remote plunge on Jan. 1, in keeping with tradition,” Garabedian said. “I’m asking people to film themselves plunging and send it to me and we will put them all together for a special 2021 Plunge video.”

“I recognize a remote plunge might not be  as exciting as the in-person event people have gotten used to, but we are trying to keep it fun and trying to stick to the traditions of the plunge as best we can,” Garabedian added.

The Penguin Plunge, which celebrates its 45th anniversary this year, is one of the biggest fundraisers of the year for Special Olympics RI, with Garabedian saying the organization usually expects to take in about $120,000 to $130,000 each year.

“This year we budgeted to bring in $60,000,” Garabedian said. “I’m hopeful we can reach that amount.”

She has also been in regular contact with her counterparts at Special Olympics organizations in other states to compare and contrast their plans.

“Plunges are the signature fundraising events for most Special Olympics programs around the country,” Garabedian said. “Since the pandemic hit last winter, I have been on many Zoom meetings with my colleagues from the US sharing best practices for remote and alternate plunges. So gathering the info and ideas has been the easy part. Putting it together and launching it while trying to gather excitement has been a bit of a challenge.”

In particular, she focuses on working closely with Special Olympics organizations in neighboring states.

“I also talk regularly to my counterparts from the other New England states,” Garabedian said. “Maine also has a New Year’s Day plunge so I have been following what they are doing and we share ideas and frustrations.”

The concerns regarding COVID-19 are ones shared by many in the plunging community, Garabedian says.

“As I’m reaching out to people I’m finding that most are worried about COVID,” Garabedian said. “They either have it or are worried about getting it, or a family member getting it. The economy is another factor and the uncertainty of what is to come in early 2021.”

It’s certainly led to something no one in the organization ever expected.

“Probably for the first time in 45 years, the plunge is more of an afterthought due to COVID,” Garabedian said, though she added she expects participation and fundraising for the event to pick up after Christmas. 

She said that, by and large, people have felt the organization is doing the right thing.

“Thankfully most people recognize that this is the way it has to be and are very understanding,” Garabedian said. “Most importantly, people recognize that (Special Olympics RI) has been hit very hard by the pandemic, as we had to cancel almost all of our 2020 fundraising events and donations and sponsorships have been down considerably. It’s always been very important to start the new year off strong; however, we have lowered the expectations for the 2021 plunge drastically.”

People interested in plunging can register on the Special Olympic RI’s website, specialolympicsri.org. In order to participate this year, all plungers must pre-register and raise at least $50, which also gets them a 2021 Penguin Plunge face mask, with those who raise over $100 receiving a 2021 Polar Plunge long sleeve T-shirt. To participate, plungers must record a 30-60 second landscape video of them taking an ice bath, pouring an ice bucket on themselves or another form of cold water. Plungers are encouraged to make their videos as creative and fun as possible, with awards being given out for the best videos, and are encouraged to hold up a sign promoting the Penguin Plunge or Special Olympics RI, say why they’re plunging and challenge two or three friends to take the plunge as well.

Special Olympics RI encourages posting the videos on social media, but in order to enter the contest, they must first be sent by Sunday to tracy@specialolympicsri.org, and then they’ll be able to be added to the Penguin Plunge livestream on New Years Day.

Across town in Narragansett, the Narragansett Lions Club announced via Facebook that their annual Narragansett Lions Club Pier Plunge at the Narragansett Town Beach is canceled this year.

“Unfortunately we will not be holding the 2021 Pier Plunge on New Year’s Day in an effort to keep everyone safe,” the Narragansett Lions Club wrote. “As you know, this is a fundraiser, so if you want to plunge on your own at any location, feel free to post your pics. We will even accept bathtub plunges in icy water (appropriately dressed, of course). And, plunge or not, if you can donate, please do so. All money raised helps the community.”

Anyone looking to donate to them can send a check to the Narragansett Lions Club PO Box 186 Narragansett, RI 02882.

Over in North Kingstown, a year after taking over the annual Polar Plunge from the former West Bay YMCA, the Town of North Kingstown Recreation Department announced their event, too, would be online-only this year.

“Unfortunately due to COVID we will not be hosting a ‘traditional’ polar plunge,” Recreation Director Chelsey Dumas-Gibbs said. “We encourage everyone to take the plunge on their own for a fresh start to a healthy new year.”

To enter the virtual Polar Plunge, plungers must send a 15-30 second appropriate video of their personal plunge to cdumas@northkingstown.org on Jan. 1 or 2, and the videos will be combined into one large video to celebrate and ring in the New Year in a COVID-safe way.

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