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Rubber Ducks Race for Fame and a Home

By Joann Fan

They had no names, only numbers. They bobbed impatiently in the water ten minutes before the race. Their squeakers primed, some contenders were buried under the crush of their peers while others were pushed up against the metal cage used to hold them back before the start. All 600 bore the Stony Brook University logo on their chests. And on Friday, April 23, with Earthstock happening in the background, the rubber ducks had their big day.

The area was all but deserted, save for volunteers working to get the ducks in position and students who wanted to get a look in advance. But it did not stay that way for long, as a crowd gradually gathered to watch these ducks continue a nine-year tradition.

The ducks evolved over these nine classes. The first year, they were the standard yellow and about the size of an ink cartridge. In 2003, their plumage assumed the university’s trademark color, scarlet. This year, they were a bit larger — about the size of a pear. This new size was an experiment in setting the bar higher for later generations.

Two minutes before the race began, hundreds of spectators had crowded around, straining for a look at the duck they had chosen as favorites to win.

Numbers nine and 505 were two lucky ducks that had been adopted nearly three weeks before the race. Rosie Kavanah, a first-year student and English major who attended the race to cheer on her adoptees, had heard about the duck race and adopted them the first week they were available. The ducks never had a chance to meet her before the race, but being chosen so far in advance may have bolstered their morale and possibly even affected their performance.

It would’ve been difficult, if not nearly impossible, to spot her new family members, though — all 600 ducks were identical except for a number scrawled in sharpie on their bottoms. And the sheer number of them — almost overflowing the starting area, some places stacked several ducks high — complicated things even further.

Just as the race was set to begin, the music inundating the Earthstock celebration paused to allow a volunteer to announce the race. “Wow,” a spectator’s voice carried over the chatter of the crowd, so everyone nearby could hear, “there really are six hundred of them here. So many ducks!”

Number 187 took an early lead. Unlike many of the ducks that had started out flipped upside-down or had gotten stuck on the terraces going down the “brook” behind the Administration Building, 187 kept its lead and tumbled, almost agonizingly slowly, over the final ridge to cheers from the crowd. A volunteer caught it before it could hit the water in the fountain and announced the number to even more cheers.

The other ducks followed, but they did drop into the fountain at the end. Volunteers began netting the ducks as they finished the race and dropped them back into the black waist-high garbage bin in which they had been stabled prior to the race, to be returned to their adopters.

Though the race seemed as if it was winding down, Susan DiMonda, an associate dean and director of student life, had planned to have the climax of the race at the end. Both the first and last place finishers receive a prize: a basket containing four tickets to a Long Island Ducks game and a sweatshirt. “To kind of keep people cheering on for the last duck,” she explained.

By the end of the race, two final ducks, both flipped, were stuck on the final terrace. Spectators first waited with bated breath, then apprehension, then impatience as the rubber animals refused to finally tumble over. Numbers 398 and 496 had come to a standstill in the final stretch, staring each other down while the water nudged them slowly closer to the edge.

After a few minutes, spectators from a bit further up the brook began to splash water towards the finish line, hoping to “encourage” them over. At last, 496 and 398 lost their holds. 496 crossed the finish line first, leaving 398 the final winner.

Over the course of the race, several ducks had gotten stuck behind terrace steps, and some spectators called the legitimacy of 398’s win into question. Was it fair that it had gotten stuck? Did its human sponsor deserve the prize? Was it pure luck that some ducks were able to grab a hold while some weren’t?

Kavanah, whose ducks didn’t win a prize, decided to be a good sport about it. “The ducks are so light, some are bound to get stuck,” she said, turning a rubber duck in her hands after the race. “Obviously it wasn’t a perfectly fair race, but it’s not really a big deal.”

Mary Ruth Govindavari, a sophomore with plans to become a social worker, concurred with Kavanah regarding 398. “I just thought it was kind of funny.” She had adopted ducks 8 and 10 several weeks before the race and ended up taking home ducks 258 and 364, because it would be too much of a hassle to return ducks by number to their adopters.

In 2002, after the first race, DiMonda and her helpers had tried to match ducks to their sponsors. But the clamoring of hundreds of students, each waving slips of paper with a very specific number on it, and a box of 500 ducks, all identical except for their numbers, quickly destroyed any hope of straightening it all out. “A nightmare,” she called it.

Both Kavanah and Govindavari said they wished they could have gotten the duck they picked, having had their numbers memorized for weeks, but, Kavanah said, “I know they couldn’t do it. There are just too many ducks.”

Several spectators who watched the race, but didn’t adopt in advance, paid a dollar to take home an unclaimed duck. But there will still leftovers. DiMonda had hoped to have all of them adopted. “I’d like to be able to say, ‘sorry, we have no more left,’” she said.

After students were matched with birds, the crowd around the brook cleared as quickly as it had formed. Earthstock 2010 was still going strong, and those with ducks tucked them into pockets, shopping bags and backpacks as they dispersed to attend the rest of the festivities. Throughout the rest of the day, flashes of scarlet rubber and bright yellow beaks announced the presence of a rubber duck with a new home.

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