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Ducky Derby races 70,000 rubber ducks in the Chicago River, raises money for Special Olympics Illinois

As of Thursday afternoon, the Derby has raised about $310,340 for Special Olympics Illinois.

70,000 rubber ducks are thrown into the Chicago River near the Columbus Bridge in the Loop during the Chicago Ducky Derby, Thursday afternoon, Aug. 5, 2021. The Chicago Ducky Derby was held to raise funds for Special Olympics Illinois.
This year’s Derby raised about $310,340 for Special Olympics Illinois.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

A fleet of yellow rubber duckies sporting sunglasses bobbed down the Chicago River on Thursday afternoon.

Crowds of smiling spectators, children blowing duck beak whistles, boat riders, kayakers and drivers cheered on the 70,000 toy ducks raising money for Special Olympics Illinois.

A truckload of them was dropped into the Chicago River from the Columbus Bridge at the 1 p.m. “Splashdown.” With the help of the Chicago Park District and Coast Guard, the ducks floated to the finish line halfway to the Michigan Avenue Bridge.

Chicago residents could “adopt” a duck for $5 to enter the race. As of Thursday afternoon, the Derby has raised about $310,340 for Special Olympics Illinois.

“We sold 70,000 duckies, which is a huge accomplishment,” said Alexandra MacMillan, the event’s communications coordinator.

The first place ducky won a 2021 Chevy Trailblazer. Second and third place duckies won an all-inclusive trip to Mexico and $2,000, respectively.

People on a water taxi wave before 70,000 rubber ducks were thrown into the Chicago River near the Columbus Bridge in the Loop during the Chicago Ducky Derby to raise funds for Special Olympics Illinois, Thursday afternoon, Aug. 5, 2021.
Ducky Derby spectators watched from boats, kayaks, cars and the street.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Before the race, families milled around the festival of games, music and food at 401 N. Michigan Ave. Visitors lined the Riverwalk, Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive. The Derby also hosted a virtual festival for those who could not attend in person.

Becky Cavanagh, a Special Olympics Illinois global messenger and athlete, sold about 900 rubber ducks. The race day was also her sixteenth birthday.

“There’s a lot of people who like Becky and believe in this cause,” said Joe Cavanagh of his daughter with Down syndrome.

Becky Cavanagh attends the Ducky Derby with her parents Joe and Jane.
Becky Cavanagh participates in three Special Olympics Illinois sports.
Nina Molina

The Clarendon Hills family has been attending and fundraising for the Ducky Derby for eight years.

“I do horseback riding, rhythmic gymnastics and swimming,” said Becky Cavanagh. “And, I’m excited for the boat ride.”

Many other Special Olympics Illinois athletes brought their families to support the cause.

“Nate’s one of the best golfers in the state of Illinois,” said Holly Simon, mother of the Special Olympian. “We support him every chance we get.”

Nate Simon, 18, has been golfing for 10 years but also participates in gymnastics, swimming, basketball and track and field events.

Nate stands with his mother Holly and sister Lindsey.
Nate Simon, also known as “Nate the Great” or the “Mayor of Chicago,” is known for his golf skills and outgoing personality.
Nina Molina

His older sister, Lindsey, also came along to support “Nate the Great,” or “The Mayor of Chicago,” as Nate has won over 100 Special Olympics medals and makes friends with everyone he meets.

“We love what Special Olympics Illinois does for our children,” said Holly Simon. “He’s met amazing people and friends, and he’s had a blast along the way.”

This year’s Ducky Derby Ambassador is Mallory Taylor, a Special Olympics Illinois athlete from Naperville.

The first rubber ducky that passed through the plastic tunnel near the finish line won. The 24-year-old thrust the lucky ducky into the air for the crowds to see.

“It (Special Olympics Illinois) has a special place in my heart,” said Taylor, after the race. “It was great, and I am very proud.”

Taylor’s boyfriend of 10 years, Mike Riordan, and Taylor’s parents, Bonnie and Bob, cheered her on from the Riverwalk.

Mallory Taylor, an athlete and the 2021 Chicago Ducky Derby duck ambassador, holds the rubber duck that reached the finish line first during the Chicago Ducky Derby.
Mallory Taylor, from Naperville, raised money by asking others to “adopt” rubber ducks with her Special Olympics Illinois team the Darling Ducklings.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Taylor’s team, the Darling Ducklings, a group of about 25 Special Olympics Illinois athletes, sold over 13,000 ducks.

“Thank you for the support and this great experience,” Taylor said.

Bonnie Taylor echoed her daughter’s enthusiasm.

“Chicago and the state of Illinois have been so supportive of Special Olympics,” she said. “It’s been quite an honor.”

Crews scoop rubber ducks out of the Chicago River during the Chicago Ducky Derby where 70,000 rubber ducks were thrown into the Chicago River near the Columbus Bridge in the Loop, Thursday afternoon, Aug. 5, 2021. The Chicago Ducky Derby was held to raise funds for Special Olympics Illinois.
The Chicago Park District and Coast Guard helped facilitate the race.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times