Cold rain, chilly weather provide ‘perfect’ conditions for the Penguin Plunge

Penguin Plunge participants bravely run into the cold waters of Great Hollow Lake Saturday.

MONROE, CT — After a week in which temperatures occasionally climbed into the 60s, the mercury dropped to around 45 degrees Saturday and a cool breeze could be felt amid bouts of cold, intermittent rain.

A crowd of people gathered at the Pavilion mingled over hot dogs and hamburgers grilled by Monroe police officers, and some munched on doughnuts and slices of pizza, while knowing many would soon swap their comfort zones for the cold waters of Great Hollow Lake.

Sgt. Todd Keeping, who organized the annual Penguin Plunge, a fundraiser benefiting Special Olympics Connecticut’s athletes, oversaw the activities.

“Today’s perfect,” he said with a smile. “I don’t want it to be like 60. It’s early April, but it feels like late March.”

These events, which are held all over the state, are often known as polar plunges, meaning the water is supposed to be freezing cold. Keeping said he may schedule next year’s Penguin Plunge in late February or early March for the full, bone chilling experience.

Before participants took the Plunge Saturday, Monroe K-9 Officer Michael DeCarli and his dog Riggs performed a demonstration for the crowd. Riggs found a pocket knife and a key chain on the beach, before chasing down a suspect and wrestling him to the ground.

Donning the bite suit again this year was Officer Michael Panza.

The Monroe Police Department holds several events to raise money for Special Olympics Connecticut every year, including Tip-A-Cop and Cop-on-Top, while also participating in the Law Enforcement Torch Run.

“I’m proud of the department’s commitment to the Special Olympics,” Police Chief Keith White said. “Our officers take pride in the event and their ability to contribute.”

Monroe’s officers have often led other area police departments in their fundraising efforts, but were edged out in the friendly competition by officers in Branford and Brookfield last year.

However, the Monroe Police Department is already off to a great start in 2024. Keeping said the Penguin Plunge raised over $40,000, which is about $5,000 more than last year.

Keeping expressed his gratitude to the Plunge’s participants and the local businesses who sponsored the event by donating money, food and other assistance.

He gave a shoutout to Jennie’s Pizza, 380 Monroe Turnpike, in particular. One table had stacks of pizza boxes piled high and Keeping said the restaurant also helps police with their Tip-A-Cop fundraiser.

A table displayed Penguin Plunge T-shirts with the list of sponsors on the back. Aside from Jennie’s, supporters include: IBEW Local #488 – Monroe, 574 Wines & Spirits, Adams IGA, Dunkin’ Donuts, Macdaddy’s, Monroe Police Union, Mr. Mac’s Canteen, Newtown Savings Bank, Soup Thyme and Stop & Shop.

Law Enforcement Torch Run partners and sponsors include Adams IGA, Connecticut Elks Association Charities, Bearingstar Insurance Charitable Fund, the Hometown Foundation, Whelen Engineering Company and World Wrestling Entertainment.

Amy Zdanowski, director of special events and Torch Run liaison for Special Olympics Connecticut Inc., coordinates the Monroe Police Departments’ fundraising efforts.

“We could not do it without Todd,” she said of Keeping, who took part in the plunge himself for the first 15 years of the event. “He’s selfless with his time with Tip-A-Cop, can drops, the Plunge and the Monroe Car Show. Todd is also town captain and a leg coordinator for the Torch Run.”

The leg of the Torch Run ends in New Haven this year, where the opening ceremonies of Special Olympics Connecticut will be held at Southern Connecticut State University. The summer games will be at Southern and Fairfield University.

Zdanowski said fundraisers like the Penguin Plunge are critical to support the Connecticut Special Olympics, providing the sports and health services to its athletes at no charge.

Among them, Kyle Bertolini of Torrington, now in his thirties, was a Special Olympian since he was 8-years-old. This year he is a cyclist on the Oxford Special Olympics team. Monroe’s plunge was his second this year, having just participated in one in Tolland.

Teams came from all over the state to participate in Monroe’s Plunge Saturday, including Danbury’s team, which is sponsored by the Rivers family. Holly Rivers was there for her brother, Evan,  who runs in the 400-meter, the 4×100 and participates in the long jump.

Elka Pesco, of New Fairfield, is a coach on the Danbury Special Olympics team, whose members wore blue shirts with the message: “Dream, Believe, Achieve.” Her son, Paul, is an athlete, competing in the 100, 200 and 4 x 100 meter events.

“It’s gotten warmer,” Pesco said of Saturday’s temperatures. “When we first got here kids were fishing. I went in the water with my Crocs and it already felt warm.”

“I feel it’s still going to clear up,”  Zdanowski said of the weather before participants headed for the lake. “This is a great day. Our plungers are tried and true. They come out in any weather — rain, snow and wind. We have a dedicated corps of supporters.”

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    • Hi Bill, yes the EMS was on hand with an ambulance and a diver was in the water in case anything happened.

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