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Ducky Derby benefiting Special Olympics brings 63,000 rubber ducks to the river

Over 60,000 rubber ducks dropped off the Wabash Bridge into the Chicago River Thursday as part of the 14th annual Ducky Derby, a fundraiser for the Special Olympics of Illinois.

Over 60,000 rubber ducks are dumped off the Wabash Bridge into the Chicago River for the 14th Annual Chicago Ducky Derby to benefit Special Olympics Illinois, Thursday afternoon, Aug. 8, 2019.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

There was more yellow than usual in downtown Chicago on Thursday. And no, it wasn’t coming from the sun.

More than 63,000 rubber ducks were dumped into the Chicago River as part of the 14th annual Ducky Derby, a fundraiser for the Special Olympics of Illinois.

Crowds packed into every crevice near the waterfront to watch the plastic ducks “race” down the river.

Joanna Merkle, 58, donated “probably 250 ducks” with her team.

“We really enjoy the cause,” Merkle said. “And with everybody dancing, singing and just coming out — it’s beautiful.”

Joanna Merkle proudly holds up her VIP Pass for the Ducky Derby.
Joanna Merkle proudly holds up her VIP Pass for the Ducky Derby.
Annie Geng

Participants “adopt” ducks for $5 each. Come derby day, every donor’s duck is dropped into the river, and the first duck to finish the derby — and, of course, its donor — wins.

The event kicked off with games and festivities for participants and their families with bright yellow and orange balloons abound.

A line for free Oscar Mayer hot dogs snaked down State Street. On the river sidelines, children danced to live music by Chicago band 7th Heaven.

By half past noon, the sidelines were packed with spectators itching to see ducks.

Melissa Fraaza, 37, found a spot overlooking the water on the State Street bridge with her three children.

“It’s really cool — I didn’t realize they did this,” said Fraaza, of Wisconsin. “The kids are excited to see it.”

As the clock inched closer to the 1 p.m. — when the ducks were to be set into the river — the crowds grew antsy with anticipation.

Clamor erupted among spectators five minutes before start time as two trucks overflowing with rubber ducks assumed position on the Wabash bridge.

Crowds watch as Park District and derby officials boat over to the finish line to scoop out the winning duck.
Crowds watch as Park District and derby officials boat over to the finish line to scoop out the winning duck.
Annie Geng

Parents popped their children onto their shoulders to watch as a yellow waterfall of ducks dropped from the bridge — and the race began.

A cascade of ducks swallowed the river, and Chicago Park District officials followed the yellow mass closely as the ducks floated toward the finish line.

Within 15 minutes, one duck crossed the finish line — and officials fished out the winning duck. The lucky winner? Unfortunately for the anxious crowd, unknown for now.

The winner will be announced on the Ducky Derby’s website as soon as derby officials are able to contact the winner, a spokesperson for the event said.

Over the next hour, the crowd dissipated, making room for city Park District to begin scooping up stray rubber ducks from the river.

Noah, Olivia, Miles Champagne and Myer Baugher had a fun day at the Ducky Derby.
Noah, Olivia and Miles Champagne and Myer Baugher had a fun day at the Ducky Derby.
Annie Geng

But even when the enchantment had died for some, many remained enraptured.

Olivia Champagne, 5, dazzled by the array of colors in the sea of rubber ducks, exclaimed, “There’s so many duckies!”

As Park District continued removing ducks from the water, 7th Heaven began playing live music again, adding a little zest to the warm summer air.

Within time, the grand yellow sea of ducks diminished significantly.

“Some kind of wonderful,” the local band crooned in the background, as Chicago fell back into its usual rhythm.