Super Heroes, Pirates Hit Hampton Beach

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Plungers conquer cold, raise funds for Special Olympics

By Chelsey Shuman and Casey Sullivan

Hampton Union, Tuesday, February 8, 2011

[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online]
Students and participants kick up snow and sand as they run to the water for the third annual High School Plunge Saturday afternoon to benefit Special Olympics New Hampshire.
[Photo by Ioanna Raptis]

Conquer cold, raise funds

As the plungers scrambled for towels and anything offering warmth onlookers looked thankful for their hats, gloves and multiple layers of clothing.

HAMPTON -- While many, if not most, chose to stay somewhere warm this weekend, the plungers and supporters of the third annual High School Plunge on Saturday, Feb. 5 and the 12th annual Penguin Plunge, Sunday, Feb. 6, came out in droves to raise money for the Special Olympics New Hampshire.

At a chilling 41 degrees on Saturday, the water temperature was not ideal but that did not stop participants, many of whom were dressed as their favorite super heroes.

Trained divers and paramedics stood at the ready as plungers ran into the water at Hampton Beach in two groups, breaking through yellow police tape stretched between two towering lifeguard stands. Each group waited excitedly as radio personalities Mark and Karen from WOKQ 97.5 counted down with onlookers, reminding all participants that once in the water they should come right back out and into warm clothes to avoid getting sick.

Although many came to cheer on friends and family, there was also a good amount of people who came to show their support for the Special Olympics New Hampshire, an organization that helps more than 3,500 men and women with disabilities train and compete in activities they love.

Suzi MacDonald said she has worked with Special Olympics for years. Saturday gave her the opportunity to come out and support locals. She smiled at all those dressed for the occasion.

"These events are always fun," she said, "and the energy is always crazy no matter if you are actually participating or just watching from the sidelines."

As the plungers scrambled for towels and anything offering warmth onlookers looked thankful for their hats, gloves and multiple layers of clothing.

Raije Hollis, the ambassador for Laconia High School, stood with a huge smile despite being soaking wet and out of breath from the shock of both the water and air temperatures. He was clad only in a bathing suit.

"It's pretty cold out there," he said. "But I am happy because we raised $263 as a school for a great cause."

Afterward, participants and other donors gathered inside the Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom for hot chocolate, coffee and other refreshments, as well as gift cards to Irving, Nike and Earthtec.

While the event itself only lasted about 20 minutes, plungers and their supporters seemed to agree that it was well worth their time to contribute to an organization that helps so many every year. It was a similar scene during Sunday's event which saw a horde of 715 people bounding headlong into 40-degree waters.

The pack of people from all over New Hampshire donned swords and eye patches for this year's pirate-themed event and didn't hesitate before dunking under the frigid waters to raise money for SONH.

Leading the plungers were Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., and Executive Councilor Chris Sununu, who took the plunge this year for the first time.

"It's just wonderful to have a group here that's so strong and who puts their heart in it year after year," said a soaking-wet Sununu after running back to his family on the beach for a dry towel.

This year, Sunday's event raised $537,000 to benefit the nonprofit's operations through pledge donations, according to event coordinator Mary Conroy.

"I think the Penguin Plunge represents the best of the community that is New Hampshire," Conroy said. "We have flocks that come from Berlin, Keene, the Upper Valley and everywhere in between."

Ayotte, who took the plunge in 2009 when she was New Hampshire's attorney general, said coming to the event again was important for her, since she is consistently impressed by the athletes who participate in the Special Olympics each year and wanted to show her support.

"It's just a great cause," Rochester resident Chris Bowler said after making the plunge. "I did it once, and now I've done it 10 times."

The event was made possible by a joint effort between the Hampton Police Department, Hampton Fire and Rescue and a group of New Hampshire and Maine construction workers, who had to juggle a weekend storm and the removal of snow and ice from the beach to prepare for the event, according to Hampton Deputy Police Chief Rich Sawyer.

"People just got together and got it done," Sawyer said. "And everyone was very happy in the end."

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