Special Olympics New York on Saturday hosted its annual Town of Oyster Bay Polar Plunge, which raises funds and awareness for Special Olympics athletes on Long Island. Credit: Danielle Silverman

One year after the annual Town of Oyster Bay Polar Plunge was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, hundreds of people returned to jump into the bracing cold waters Saturday at Tobay Beach to raise money for Special Olympics athletes on Long Island.

More than 200 showed up for this year's event, according to organizers with the host, Special Olympics New York. The fundraiser, which normally features live music and other festive arrangements, was canceled last year days before its scheduled March 14 date because of the coronavirus pandemic that struck the nation days earlier.

This year, safety precautions were enacted to bring back the event at the beach on Jones Beach Island, including socially distancing teams with 15-minute intervals in between plunges, temperature checks at the beach entrance and limiting the number of spectators, according to organizers.

After jumping into the water in the morning with outside temperatures registering at 41 degrees, Kyle Delgado, 28, of Lindenhurst, said he had trained for the event by taking a lot of cold showers in the days leading up to the plunge.

"Don't think about the cold. You can't tiptoe, just jump right in," Delgado said. "There are benefits to working out in the cold. That's important during a pandemic."

Tim Byrns, 47, of Massapequa, was enjoying his first time taking the plunge as part of a group of roughly 20 adults and children representing the Massapequa Lacrosse Club, which raised close to $2,200 for the event.

"Today, we're celebrating these kids and all their hard work [to raise the money]. And it's fun to get out. You really can't prepare for this event. You just let the adrenaline go and you jump in," said Byrns, who added he and the club will participate again next year.

While Eileen Gonzalez, 48, of Massapequa, didn't jump into the water, she did get more than 40 people as part of her fundraising group, Flava Flav, to take part in Saturday's plunge. Gonzalez started the group, which raised more than $13,000 as of Saturday, partially inspired by her daughter, Ava Gonzalez, 15, who was diagnosed with Down syndrome.

Gonzalez said donors surprised and moved her during the pandemic with larger individual donations.

"It's heartwarming. I was in shock that people were so generous in every which way. It was very nice of them," Gonzalez said.

Standing in a towel drying off next to his mother Rachel Lefkof, 44, of Williston Park, Austin Lefkof, 10, said at first the water felt "like pins and needles" going in, but he quickly got over it. Austin came up with the idea to get his Cub Scout Pack 201, which raised $3,800, to participate.

"The feeling that you're going to give other people a chance is more overpowering than the cold," Austin said.

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