With Rye and its environs having undergone its own polar plunge since Christmas, it seems that nearly all of us have been feeling everything from inconvenienced and uncomfortable to unsafe and unsure. But in the midst of this deep freeze, some hardy souls made sure that the 16th annual Ray’s Polar Bear Plunge, held on New Year’s Day, was a glowing success.
In collaboration with the Town of Rye, City of Rye and Rye Town Park Commission, this event, held at Oakland Beach, raised awareness and funding for MAC Angels Foundation Macangels.org, Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF), Outreach Resurrection Food Bank and SOUL RYEDERS.
I was lucky enough to participate this year, and, as a first-timer, I found the entire experience beyond my greatest expectations. I get it now. I see why the ice bucket challenge and the polar plunge are used to raise awareness and support for ALS. The frozen sensation in my legs and arms from that ice-cold water helped me understand, if only fractionally and briefly, how it must feel to suffer from ALS, with my body not listening to me, and not feeling like mine.
Before we ran through the 12 degree air, into the chilly 46 degree Long Island Sound, Phil Gormley, who joined Ray Kelley at the helm of this event in 2004, gathered our bundled bodies together. He read an inspirational poem to us entitled Life in Reverse, by Jay Curtis, a well-known creative force at CBS, diagnosed with ALS in 2015.
A portion of the proceeds of Jay’s most recent poetry book goes toward MAC Angels, a support group that bridges the gap in services for patients and families affected by ALS. And to give a little background, the precursor to MAC Angels was an organization called Friends of Claire, named in honor of Phil’s sister, Claire Gormley Collier, who passed away from ALS in 2009.
I was cold and nervous, but as Phil read aloud to us, a comforting stillness took hold, as I stood within that bundled crowd, limbs moving to stay warm against the -5 degree wind chill.
I felt a rush of empathy, and tears sprung to my eyes, upon hearing Phil read Jay’s haunting stanzas, “My grandfather taught me to sign my name. My mother taught me to tie my shoes. My father taught me to throw a knuckleball. Skills gone like a seeded lawn under spring snow,” and then Jay’s final, “Look for me in your rearview mirror, as I live the rest of my life in reverse.”
Then Phil released us, and we were on the beach within minutes, hot pink tutus being uncloaked and bikinis were bared. Bare skin was being exposed, in spite of how wrong it felt to do so in such bitter cold.
The parallels began for me then—how ALS is just so wrong, so wrong to rob people in the prime of their life of voluntary movement through a progressive degeneration of motor neurons in the brain and spinal cord. It has no mercy, there is no cure, and it carries a swift goodbye.
I was swept up in the crowd and the excitement as we raced down toward the water. It was what we had come to do, and there was no backing out now. We all yelled “FREEDOM,” signifying freedom from the suffering that ALS inflicts, as we splashed and screamed into the frigid salty water.
I only went in up to my shoulders, I just couldn’t succumb to a full submersion, but as I ran out back up the beach, I noticed how my leg muscles didn’t quite feel like mine anymore. They were being slow to respond. They were tingling and seemed, well, distracted. They were not listening to my brain as it told them to run up the beach. And I thought, this, this is what ALS must feel like.
Later that day, at a warm and cozy gathering at Rye Grill & Bar, attended by over 100 polar plungers and their families, my legs were back to listening. And stories of PLUNGE were exchanged over truly awesome live music that set a celebratory mood. A raffle included an impressive grand prize of a 1-week stay at the Playa Linda Beach Resort in Aruba, valued at $2,205, thanks to Doreen Kralick, and an couple from Team April excitedly won it.
Then I grabbed a celebratory beer and met Gabriel Cardier, who lost his leg in a motorcycle accident while attending UCLA for his MBA in 2014. Gabriel is a grantee of the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) and over good beer and live music he smiled, expressing gratitude for being a part of the Polar Plunge and for the support he gets from CAF. That support also allowed him to compete in the NYC marathon this past November, by awarding him a travel grant, and a running blade. I felt a flash of unworthiness, mixed with awe.
Also present at the Rye Grill gathering was SOUL RYEDERS, a Rye-based organization that supports families affected by all types of cancer. SOUL RYEDERS had a team of plungers plunging in memory of April Deen, a young mom of pre-school twins who tragically passed away from ovarian cancer on December 6th. SOUL RYEDERS had supported the family, and April’s husband, Adrien, and his friends plunged in her memory.
The PLUNGE proceeds also support the Resurrection Outreach Food Bank. This committee was formalized in 2006 during the tenure of much beloved Monsignor Patrick Boyle. And today, it operates “with a mission of neighborly love, sharing time, treasure and talents with those in need of life’s basic necessities: food, clothing, education, and emergency services.”
If you missed the plunge this year, but would like to donate, here is a link to our website: https://macangel.ejoinme.org/donate. Type in PLUNGE in the honor box.
And if you haven’t yet, please mark your calendars now, for Ray’s Polar Bear Plunge 2019, and prepare to start next year off with the best feeling—and perspective, possible.