Wearing a shark hat and swimming trunks, Bob Lowery ran into the 52-degree water alongside his 15-person team, the Polar Sharks, including his 22-year-old son Peter, who was born with Fragile X syndrome, a genetic mental impairment similar to autism.
Lowery was among the nearly 1,000 people that plunged into the Long Island Sound at Cedar Beach in Mount Sinai Saturday during Brookhaven’s fourth annual polar plunge.
“It wasn’t as bad as I thought it’d be,” said Lowery, 55, of Patchogue. “I mean, I was scared to death to hit that icy water, but this is to support our son and a great program that’s given him a chance to play golf and swim and be happy. We owe them everything.”
Lowery’s son has been with Special Olympics New York for 15 years, even becoming a Special Olympics state champion in golf, he said.
Wearing a shark hat and tutu, Peter’s swim coach, Katie Henthorne, who has been coaching him for three years, had to drag him out of the water after plunging.
“I’m so proud of him for doing this,” said Henthorne, 24, of Patchogue. “This is an incredible feat for him and I’m glad to be here with him. He may have liked the cold.”
Kristina Aquilone, director of development at Special Olympics New York, said 1,000 plungers registered and it was the organization’s most successful plunge ever, raising $130,000.
“It was incredible this year. Everybody got behind us,” said Aquilone, 29, of Smithtown. “I think this is by far the largest plunge we’ve ever had. They looked like they enjoyed it.”
Last year, 550 people registered for the polar plunge, which raised $65,000. Aquilone said the date was pushed back due to superstorm Sandy, affecting participation.
Special Olympics New York has 61,582 athletes training and competing year-round in 22 Olympics-style sports. Athletes are never charged to participate, but it costs $400 to support training and competition for one athlete for a season, according to its website.
Wearing fake green pigtails, a “Little Mermaid” shirt and bright red blush, Lauren Smith, troop leader of Girl Scout Troop 248 in Miller Place, was among the 10 parents and troop leaders to raise $2,300 and plunge into water that was warmer than the air.
“We’re leading by example for our scouts,” said Smith, 38, of Miller Place. “We’re trying to teach our girls the importance of community involvement, fundraising and how powerful teamwork can be. Our hope is that they plunge with us next year.”
After everyone had already dived in, Anthony Luongo was still working on convincing his hesitant 12-year-old cousin, Nico Sandella, of Smithtown, to get into the water.
Luongo’s 14-person team, “Shock and Thaw,” raised $2,400 to benefit Special Olympics New York, in which his cousin participates in track and softball. Luongo said these activities are what make Nico happiest.
“When I found out about this, right away I thought of him because I knew how happy he is with the Olympics,” said Luongo, 24, of Medford. “Our goal is to send as many people to the Special Olympics as possible. It’s the least we can do.”