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plunging for a purpose

Elwood Johnson

Elwood Johnson

Profession: Chief of Police for the Town of Richmond since 2010

Hometown:  Jamestown, RI

Super Plunger Since: 2013 (Inaugural Year)

What initially prompted you to get involved in the Super Plunge for Special Olympics Rhode Island?
My good friend, Ken Ledo, a former East Providence Firefighter and former Torch Run Co-Director had attended an International Law Enforcement Torch Run Conference and came back with the idea as the state of Maryland had great success with their Super Plunge events. I decided to do the first ever Super Plunge in Rhode Island in March 2013, with very little overhead expense by borrowing a mobile command vehicle from the Charlestown Police Department to use as my overnight shelter.  It has been an honor to watch it grow in popularity and raise more awareness each year.

Describe at a high level the Super Plunge experience.
It is a very difficult physical challenge to fight fatigue and to go from a warm comfortable environment out into the cold air, particularly in the black of night, and dive into the freezing cold ocean, over and over again for 24 hours.  Sleep deprivation makes it very challenging, but the camaraderie of the team really carries us through the night, particularly our Captain, Michael Bullock, a SORI athlete who has inspired all of us with his enthusiasm, and can-do attitude. That is the best part, making it to the end, and witnessing our SORI athletes at the beach for the last plunge and being celebrated by everyone there. It is intoxicating – tolerance and acceptance in plain sight for all to see.

Given that you’re plunging into icy waters every hour for 24 hours straight, are you able to eat or sleep at all?
Eat yes, too much, but ironically the constant plunging into cold water has us burning a ton of calories as it cranks up our metabolism.  Sleeping, lol, not really. You may catch a 5-20 minute cat nap between plunges. Your heart is racing when you get out of the water and you are wide awake. Once you get dry, dressed, and back into the warm shed, it takes time to unwind and get to a place where you can relax enough to sleep. When you do catch a nap, the alarm always seems to be sounding a minute later reminding you that it’s time to get up and go in again.

How do you personally prepare for the Super Plunge?
This is my 11th year, so the confidence of knowing I can do it is very helpful. You bring the gear you need to plunge, dry off, and stay warm overnight, but as far as the actual plunging, it is a state of mind and trying to keep yourself healthy enough to participate is key. I am very determined, so the mindset is, “I will plunge headfirst into the ocean every hour, no matter what.”  And we enjoy the countdown, “two down, twenty-two to go…” and so forth. It helps you feel a sense of accomplishment with your team members.  

During the Super Plunge, are there any steps you take or rituals you follow before and/or after each of the 24-hour plunges?
We try to interact with spectators and athletes who are there to support us for each plunge.  Rotating swim trunks and towels in the changing area so that the wet one hangs to dry, and you end up with a dry pair. In the shelter, we keep the atmosphere light, and make sure one another is doing okay. We love to watch the movie JAWS on the flat screen TV in the shed in between plunges. Aside from being a great movie, it works with the event, lol.

Describe how you feel physically and emotionally after the final 24th plunge?
Physically drained but totally, emotionally exhilarated by the accomplishment and reaching that euphoric atmosphere on the beach with all of the SORI athletes who are there to plunge or cheer others on. The air is electric and totally positive. To see all those people who came out to support the athletes and participate in the Torch Run Plunge is the perfect way to close the 24-hour event. Reaching fundraising goals, raising awareness to new heights, and doing all of that as a team with no injuries is always a huge sense of relief and satisfaction.

Do you have a favorite memory from any of the Super Plunges you’ve participated in?
Too many to say one. But I’d have to say that the most challenging year became the most memorable.  In 2017, we had to move the plunge to the open ocean because our original location, at Goddard Park, had frozen over. We had the coldest plunge year ever, with wind chills taking air temps down to -17 degrees. Our changing tent was littered with items of clothing and towels that were frozen to the decking of the tented pavilion and hanging racks. Members of the team expressed concerns at about 1am, when it was brutally cold. It was also the first year that Michael Bullock, our SORI athlete, was on the team. I approached Michael and explained that due to the temperatures, there was no shame in calling it due to concern for people’s well-being. Michael’s response was, “LET’S KEEP GOING! WE CAN DO THIS!” That was it, from that moment forward, he earned the respect of the team and the rank of Captain. We were also blessed that year to have hard shelters, because for the first time ever, Kloter Farms of CT donated sheds to us for the duration of the event. Without those as shelters, we wouldn’t have been able to go on that year.  But we made it through the night despite the cold, and when the sun came up, we all got our second wind.

What message would you like to share with members of the public about your commitment to the Super Plunge and the athletes of Special Olympics Rhode Island, and about how members of the public can support this initiative?
Special Olympics RI empowers people with intellectual disabilities to reach their full potential. The athletes I’ve met and known for over three decades are the best examples of humanity that I’ve ever seen. It is awe-inspiring and never tiring to witness. It is most worthy of volunteer support, and donations to keep the programs going that provide for 4,000 people with intellectual disabilities, promoting tolerance and acceptance in our society.

Aside from the Super Plunge, are you involved with Special Olympics Rhode Island in any other way?
I am a former Co-Director and current member of the Rhode Island Torch Run Committee, a former member of the SORI Executive Board (2018-2023), and a volunteer for 36 years that all began as a medal presenter at Summer Games at URI. I continue in that capacity, by attending Regional and Summer Games in uniform to present medals, and support the athletes and their families by presence, gesture, and deed.

Anything else you’d like to add about the Super Plunge or Special Olympics Rhode Island?
If you really don’t know anything about Special Olympics, and have never met a SORI athlete, I strongly encourage you to visit our Super Plunge/Torch Run Plunge event, and to stop by at Summer Games at URI.  If your eyes are open, and you are listening, I am confident you will leave inspired, and uplifted by the experience. 


The Plunging for a Purpose Series

The “Plunging for a Purpose” series celebrates the indomitable spirit of the Torch Run Super Plunge participants. These remarkable individuals are gearing up for an extraordinary challenge: plunging into icy waters every hour for a relentless 24-hour stretch, starting at 1 p.m. on March 23 and concluding at noon on March 24, all at Salty Brine State Beach. Their goal? To raise vital funds and awareness for the athletes of Special Olympics Rhode Island. Through their dedication and selflessness, they inspire us all. Join us in supporting their cause by considering a donation to their remarkable endeavor.