Hundreds Brave Icy Long Island Sound for Special Olympics

It was 44 degrees outside on Saturday but that didn’t stop 750 brave individuals from charging into Long Island Sound. 

Some only ran into the water up to their ankles before heading back to the beach at Glen Island Park in New Rochelle. Others dove in completely. The swimmers included high school students and parents along with a few people who had been dared by their coworkers to jump into the icy water. 

What they all had in common was their reason for racing toward the frigid water: a chance to raise money and awareness for Special Olympics New York. 

Saturday’s event was the group’s 10th annual Polar Bear Plunge in Westchester County, according to Lizzy Latinsky, the associate director of development for Special Olympics New York. Before the event, participants asked friends, family members, coworkers and strangers to donate on their behalf. Participants could raise money individually or as part of a team, as many schools and offices did.

Special Olympics New York provides training and competitions for more than 66,000 children and adults with intellectual disabilities. The New York branch sponsors thousands of practices and competitions for its athletes every year, Latinsky said. “We’re a true blue sports organization,” she said. “It’s not just feel good. We’re competitive.”

The plunge is an event that both supporters and Special Olympics athletes can participate in. “It’s unique,” Latinsky said. “It’s something people get excited about.”

Participants started arriving just before 10 a.m. Some were high school students encouraged to participate to earn community service hours required by their high school. 

Brandon LaSpina, a 17-year-old senior at Somers High School, is particularly passionate about the cause. He first became involved in Special Olympics events in middle school while helping out with a basketball tournament. When the teams of Special Olympics athletes arrived for the tournament, LaSpina said he knew he’d found a passion.

“That first hug they gave me, that was the moment I became so engaged,” LaSpina said, referring to the group of Special Olympics athletes who train and compete at his school. “They’re always smiling. It’s so great to see.”

LaSpina is actively involved in his town’s Leadership Experience and Opportunity (LEO) club, the high school branch of the Lion’s Club, an international community service organization.

He first brought the idea to the club last year with a goal to raise $6,000. They raised $27,000, LaSpina said. This year, they beat their $30,000 goal for a final total over $36,000. LaSpina raised $1,300 himself. 

“Any donation helps, and to know that I can help at least three athletes is a big deal,” he said.

Special Olympics athletes and their families don’t have to pay for their training, equipment or competitions. Each athlete costs the organization about $400 per season, according to Special Olympics New York’s website.

“A lot of our kids come from the city,” Latinsky said. “They don’t have a place where they can compete and feel welcome.”

The money raised Saturday will stay in the New York City area and go toward expenses such as purchasing equipment, hiring coaches, and providing transportation to and from competitions, she said, “anything associated with giving them a safe place to compete and keeping it cost free for them.”

Lauren Kurtz (center), a Special Olympics athlete, smiles with her mother, Beatrice Kurtz (right) and a Polar Plunge polar bear. (The Ink/Maggie Green)

Some participants decided to join in at the last minute. A team of coworkers from Empress Ambulances decided the night before to register for the event and raised more than $1,700 in just a few hours.  The bulk of those donations came from the efforts of paramedic Sean O’Brien, who raised $1,125 by asking friends on social media to donate to his online fundraising page.

Michael Blecker, 37, a deputy emergency medical services chief from Yonkers, persuaded his colleagues to join him in the water. He raised $605 from friends and family overnight, meeting his $500 goal in just two and half hours.

“I’ve been trying to get here for years,” Blecker said. “It’s a great organization that does great things for children and adults.”

Gigi Cenname, 44, an emergency medical technician from Long Island, said she had just finished a 24-hour shift in Yonkers before the plunge. “It looked fun,” she said. “I’ve never tried it before.”

But perhaps no one was more excited than 22-year-old Lauren Kurtz, a Special Olympics athlete from the Bronx. Dancing, hugging and high-fiving her way through the crowd, Kurtz led the plunge in a bright pink swim suit. 

Kurtz has been competing with the Special Olympics since high school, said her mother Beatrice Kurtz. She’s played bocci ball, run the 50- and 100-meter dashes and thrown the javelin. Now, she enjoys bowling. 

“She does the best she can and she’s doing better,” Beatrice Kurtz said.

A group of Lauren Kurtz’s friends from Harris Hands Community Services, an organization that provides resources for individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities, came to support her. Some were Special Olympics athletes themselves.

(left to right) Dominique Smith, Nancy Pinzon, Marianela Pichardo and Edy Quintanilla came to the event to support their friend Lauren Kurtz. (The Ink/Maggie Green)

As noon approached, the participants made their way to the beach while spectators readied their cameras. 

The main event was over in a matter of minutes. Cenname said the water wasn’t as bad as she thought it would be. “I’ll be back next year,” she said. Cenname said she would begin her fundraising well in advance next year and vowed to beat out her coworkers for the most donations.

Saturday’s event raised more than $140,000, according to Special Olympics New York director of development Kaitlin Brennan. 

While many participants said the dunk made the day for them, Beatrice Kurtz said the best part of the day was seeing old friends and “the camaraderie as we come together to support our athletes.”