Plunging for funds: Team takes ‘super’ challenge for Special Olympics

Plunging for funds: Team takes ‘super’ challenge for Special Olympics

From left, Rick LaBreche, of Woonsocket, honorary team member and Special Olympics athlete Michael Walter, of Barrington, Eric Leclerc, of North Providence, and William Ziehl, of Coventry, walk on the beach after a plunge at a past Super Plunge event.

As Rick LaBreche, of Woonsocket, prepares to plunge into the ocean at Salty Brine Beach in Narragansett 24 times in 24 hours this weekend, the retired firefighter said after four years, the challenge doesn’t get any easier.

“We’re at the mercy of the weather,” he told The Breeze.

LaBreche, along with 20 others ranging in age from 17 to 63, will take part in the 7th annual Super Plunge, starting at 1 p.m. this Saturday, March 23 and ending at noon on Sunday, March 24.

Each person plunges into the freezing water each hour for 24 hours, no matter the weather, but participants say it’s all worth it for the cause: to raise awareness and money for Special Olympics Rhode Island, headquartered in Smithfield.

Team members, most from across Rhode Island, raise money through sponsorships, which can be found at .

As of Monday, the team had raised $91,000 toward its goal of $150,000. Last year they raised $135,500 for the organization.

“Last year was fantastic,” said LaBreche, head coach of Rhody Rangers, a team of 37 Special Olympics athletes from Woonsocket, North Smithfield, Cumberland and Burrillville, including his 15-year-old daughter Sarah.

William Ziehl, of Coventry and retired Foster Police Chief, said people ask him every year why he doesn’t just write a check.

“It’s not just for the funds, it’s for the awareness that we raise,” said Ziehl, whose brother-in-law is a Special Olympics athlete. “It’s all for the athletes.”

Special Olympics Rhode Island supports approximately 4,000 athletes who compete in two dozen different sporting events at no cost, Ziehl and LaBreche said.

“Everything we do goes back to them,” Ziehl said. “That’s what keeps us going.”

Ziehl, who’s been through two military bootcamps and the police academy, said the Super Plunge is both a physical and mental challenge.

“Each time you hit the water it sucks the air right out of you,” he said. “It’s a long day … it’s taxing on the mind and body.”

Two years ago, he said, the temperature was 14 below and ice was falling off him. Last year the water was 34 degrees and it started snowing on Sunday morning.

“It makes the whole event,” LaBreche said. “I don’t mind if it snows.”

Despite the extreme conditions, LaBreche said there have been zero injuries or medical emergencies in past years, adding that they have medical personnel at the beach.

“We watch each other,” he said. “We take care of each other.”

Caroline Goggin, of Foxboro, Mass., is one of nine new plungers this year. The reporter and anchor for WPRI-TV Channel 12 Eyewitness News said there are people who think the plungers are crazy.

“We are,” she said. “That’s what we want them to think. We want to call attention to this organization that needs their support.”

Goggin, who is plunging for her cousin Dani who has special needs, plunged once last year after accepting a dare from LaBreche.

“It was absolutely freezing,” she said. “It was awesome. There’s such a cool atmosphere down there. Of course, it’s for a great cause.”

Between plunges, participants have roughly 45 minutes to change clothes, rehydrate, take ibuprofen and warm up their cores, all while socializing with visitors who came to watch and cheer.

“It’s surprising the number of people who come down at 1 o’clock in the morning,” Ziehl said.

Sponsors provide sheds, heat and a hot tub for the plungers, which makes it more comfortable but not any easier, he said.

Ziehl has to stop using the hot tub around 7 p.m. because his skin is so burnt, he said. He tells himself that “the cold is temporary but the impact is not.”

“I’m definitely nervous for the overnight hours but I’m excited. I hope it warms up a little bit,” Goggin said, adding that she’ll be thinking of the Special Olympics athletes who “have a tough battle each and every day (and) live their lives to the fullest.”

The Super Plunge team includes Michael Bullock, a Special Olympics athlete from East Providence, who plunges every hour. Special Olympics athlete and honorary Super Plunger Michael Walter, of Barrington, does between five to eight plunges with the team.

“It’s a living, breathing event,” LaBreche said. “It keeps growing from year to year. Raising the awareness is the most important thing.”

The 5th annual Unified Champion Schools Plunge will take place at noon on Saturday prior to the Super Plunge. At noon on Sunday the Super Plunge team will join police officers, firefighters, and corrections officers for the 12th annual Torch Run Plunge.

“I’m excited, I truly am,” LaBreche said. “At 5:30 Sunday afternoon, I’ll crash.”

Rick LaBreche, of Woonsocket, is pictured with his daughter Sarah, 15, a Special Olympics athlete.