The temperature hovered around 18 degrees and a brisk wind was swirling when Vassar golfer Aimee Dubois ’16 jumped into an icy lake last winter. Dubois says her mind has erased much of the horror of that ordeal. “I really don’t remember much about the shock of hitting the water,” she says.
On Sunday, Dubois and a contingent of her fellow varsity athletes plan to jump into that same icy lake at the New York Special Olympics 18th annual Hudson Valley Polar Bear Plunge in Fishkill, NY, about 15 miles from the Vassar campus.
More than two dozen Vassar athletes joined about 600 other hardy (or foolhardy – take your pick) souls at the event last year, and Dubois, who serves as community service representative of the Vassar Student Athlete Advisory Council, says she’s expecting even more this year. “The Polar Bear Plunge was a real bonding experience for a lot of us last year,” she says. “We raised more than $1,000 for Special Olympics, and we plan to do even better this year.” (For more information on how to support Vassar’s Polar Bear Plungers, visit 2016 Fishkill Polar Plunge or the Vassar College Athletes 2016 support page for the Special Olympics New York Incorporated.)
NCAA Division III sports teams across the country have identified Special Olympics as a national partner. Dubois says the SAAC chapter has been instrumental in providing opportunities for Vassar athletes to collaborate with the New York Special Olympics chapter on a variety of projects. Vassar hosted a Special Olympics volleyball tournament at Walker Field House last fall, and the women’s volleyball team will act as mentors for athletes at the New York Special Olympics Winter Games this weekend at various venues in the Hudson Valley.
Sophia Tiajoloff ‘18, the volleyball team’s SAAC representative, says she’s looking forward to supporting the Special Olympics athletes. “Our job is to cheer them on and help them in any way we can,” Tiajoloff says.
Finding ways to help others in the community has long been part of the fabric of the women’s volleyball team. In addition to hosting the Special Olympics tournament on campus last fall, the players have tutored in local schools, helped build a community playground and “adopted” a section of a local highway, regularly picking up discarded trash and other debris. “We’re a close-knit group that has a lot of fun together,” says co-captain Gabby Miller ’16, “but we also want to act as role models for others in the community.”
Coach Jonathan Penn, who has guided Vassar to more than 300 victories over the past 20 years, says community service has always been part of the culture of his teams. “It’s gratifying to see the players embrace this idea with such enthusiasm,” Penn says. “They are the ones who go out and find the projects they want to take part in.”
In addition to joining his team in cheering on the athletes at the Winter Games, Penn will be taking part in the Polar Bear Plunge. “I’ve never done anything like this before, and I don’t know quite what I’m getting into,” he says. “But my volleyball alums have come through for me. In a very short time, they’ve made more than $400 in pledges, so I guess I’ve got to jump.”
New York Special Olympics spokesperson Teresa Gilli says she’s thrilled Penn and a large contingent of Vassar athletes will be participating in this year’s event. “Volunteers are the life blood of Special Olympics; we simply couldn’t do what we do without them,” Gili says. “Having Vassar participating this year and in past years shows us the college is embracing our athletes and coaches. We cherish Vassar’s support.”
Like Penn, Dubois will also be doing double duty this weekend. The day before the Polar Bear Plunge, she’ll join the rest of the golf team and the men’s and women’s soccer teams for “Christmas in February” at nearby Castle Point Veterans Hospital. The event, featuring caroling and gift-giving, is organized by family and friends of the late John Flowers, a community activist who hatched the idea more than a decade ago. The soccer and golf teams take part in the event annually.
And while her brain has thankfully spared her much of the memory of last year’s plunge, Dubois says she did retain one key piece of information. “I don’t remember how cold the water was, but I do remember how long it took me to warm up,” she says. “I’ll be bringing lots of warm, dry clothing this year, and I’m advising all the other athletes to do the same.”