Brian Schiralli, already soaked by a steady rain, grabbed his Special Olympics coach’s hand, sprinted into frigid water and was already waist deep before declaring, “We are diving in.”
Without hesitation, Schiralli, who has Down syndrome, and his soccer, basketball, floor hockey and track coach of five years, Joe Branzetti, dove in headfirst.
They were among the nearly 400 people who plunged into 37-degree water during the inaugural Town of Oyster Bay Polar Plunge at Tobay Beach in Massapequa on Saturday.
“If we don’t get our heads in the water, it’s not a plunge,” said Branzetti, 62, of Flushing. “Brian goes to a lot of these and loves it. You spend 30 seconds with one of my athletes and you know why I plunge with them. They’re so passionate about what they do.”
Jennifer Cantone, development specialist for the Long Island region of Special Olympics New York, a sports organization for those with intellectual disabilities, said she expected the plunge to raise at least $25,000, and maybe much more due to walkup participants.
“Events like these benefit our athletes tremendously and it’s another way to raise awareness for what we do and bring some fun to the South Shore,” said Cantone, 42, of Coram. “I know it’s raining, but people are still going to come. Everyone’s going to get wet anyways. And it’s still cold enough to be our goodbye to winter plunge.”
Special Olympics New York has 61,582 athletes training and competing year-round in 22 Olympics-style sports, according to its website, and the money raised will benefit those athletes so they can compete at no cost. About $400 covers the training and competition for one athlete per sports season.
Before registration even began, Sgt. Thomas Heinsohn, a recruiter for the U.S. Marine Corps Recruiting Center in Hicksville, led a training session of drills, pushups and pullups for 16 Marine applicants on the beach.
“Being asked to volunteer and plunge helps put our name out there, but it’s also great that we can raise money for such a worthy cause,” said Heinsohn, 25, of Farmingdale, who has served as a Marine for eight years. “We can handle a little rain and cold water. We’re Marines.”
After the last wave of plungers, 14-year-old Natalie Rich and her two friends sprinted to their towels and huddled together to stay warm, shivering uncontrollably.
“This is our first time, but it was a blast,” said Natalie, of Bethpage. “I didn’t think it would be this cold, but it didn’t matter to us. It was for a good cause.”