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Swimmers hit Rockaway Beach to fight cystic fibrosis

Rockaway Beach was a wintery mess Saturday afternoon, far south enough to have a few inches of slushy snow to go with 40 mph winds, 36-degree ocean water and 24-degree air.

But not even that confluence of conditions could stop hundreds of people from flocking from miles around to take a nippy dip in the frigid drink to help Annie McMahon and fight cystic fibrosis.

The 10th-annual Plunge for the Cure raised well over $100,000 this year in funds that will be donated to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation in the name of McMahon, now 13, who was diagnosed with the disease 11 years ago.

More than 200 people took the plunge this year, stripping to their skivvies and gathering along the water near Beach 98th Street to sing “Ole, Ole, Ole” and pump their fists in preparation while hundreds more watched from the boardwalk.

Eddie Chase, a Flushing resident who drives down for the event every year, admitted it was a “ludicrous” idea and his friend, Guy Bove, of Rockaway Beach, agreed as they stood in swimming trunks waiting to go in.

“I’m here for the kids and the thrill. I like to do stupid stuff and to help a good cause, it’s like killing two birds with one stone,” he said. “It’s too cold, but these kids still got cystic fibrosis no matter how cold it is. It takes a couple of minutes, you freeze your cahones off, and get back out.”

When McMahon first found out she had cystic fibrosis, an inherited disease that causes thick, sticky mucus to build up in the lungs and digestive tract, the life expectancy for those with the disease was 21 years, but since then it has risen to 36. Her father says that is what makes the annual plunge he and a friend created so worthwhile and successful.

“Over the last 10 years we’ve raised close to a million dollars. Here’s the key: In 10 years the life expectancy for kids has nearly doubled so what we have done here has worked,” he said. “Yes, we’d like to find a cure, but finding ways to extend their life is just as good.”

A man with a megaphone counted down to zero from 10 and the crazed bathers chased a receding wave out to the sea, many stopping dead in their tracks as the water washed over them.

Some ran right back to the towels, hot coffee and cold cans of beer awaiting on the shore, while others tried to stick it out as long as they could.

Many came out shivering, clamoring to get back to the St. Camillus School gym, where refreshments, friends, music and, most importantly, heat awaited.

But others embraced it, including first-time plunger Bekim Tafilaj, of Edgewater, N.J., who came to Rockaway just for the event after his friend’s son was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis.

“I feel good. I feel like I had a massage, my whole body’s numb,” he said, painted from head to toe in red and black to show his pride for his home country of Albania. “After you come out, you’re very relaxed. It’s not as bad as it seems, but your toes do hurt a little bit.”

Reach reporter Connor Adams Sheets by e-mail at csheets@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4538.

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