Penguin Plunge is a Splash for Special Olympics

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By Liz Premo

Atlantic News , February 17, 2000

[The following article is courtesy of the Atlantic News ]

Penguin Plunge participants, 2000

PENGUIN PLUNGERS AT THE READY -- With hundreds of spectators looking on, approximately 160 brave souls gathered at Hampton Beach to take the Plunge in the first annual Penguin Plunge, an event which proved to be a very successful fundraiser for Special Olympics New Hampshire. Seven groups of Penguin Plungers raised pledge money in the weeks prior to a chilly dip in the Atlantic Ocean last Sunday afternoon. Shown above just before taking the plunge are Alan Tardiff (in the bowtie), Dayna Stront Mylen (in the purple scarf); Hampton Police Chief William "Santa" Wrenn; State Senator Beverly Hollingworth; Hampton Selectman Brian Warburton and, in the penguin suit, Dan Nersesian, a Hampton selectman candidate. The Penguin Plunge raised about $114,000, which will be used to bring the number of Special Olympics athletes in New Hampshire from 2000 up Atlantic News 3000 participants.

HAMPTON -- The weather may not have been as frigid as in Februaries past, but there was a little bit of an attention-getting nip in the breeze this past Sunday as waves of hardy "Penguin Plungers" plunged into the waves off Hampton Beach for a very worthy cause.

While hundreds of spectators cheered them on, almost 160 participants took to the chilly waters of the Atlantic in the first annual Penguin Plunge, organized to support Special Olympics New Hampshire. Weeks of pledging, fundraising, and (of course) physical conditioning led up this special event, hosted by WMUR TV Channel 9's Sports Director Charlie Sherman (the official "Emperor Penguin" and a Penguin Plunger himself) and Meteorologist/Emcee Chris Thomas (who, along with the rest of the spectators, opted to watch the proceedings on fairly dry land).

Participants had dressed light — and lightheartedly — for the occasion. Besides various styles of swimwear, costumes were the order of the day for many. In the hours prior to the Plunge itself, participants attired as comic book characters, penguins, Santa Claus, and assorted "plunger-heads," could be seen on the sands near the "Lady Statue" as they awaited the call for the Plunge to officially begin. Even the Hampton Beach Seafood Festival mascot, Louie the Lobster, was part of the festivities.

Admitting that he wondered "who would ever jump into Hampton Beach in the middle of winter in their scivvies," Channel 9's Charlie Sherman (looking fashionable in his striped "custom-made designer [swim] suit") rallied the troops about 1 p.m.,just before they divided up into their alphabetically-assigned detachments. With the faithful "Blanket Brigade" standing at the ready to offer Plungers warm blankets supplied by the Red Cross, the actual "Plunge" finally took place.

Emergency personnel from the Hampton Fire Department were at the ready not far from the water's edge, while in the water itself an orange-and-black-Viking-dry-suited officer from New Hampshire Fish & Game was ready to lend assistance if needed. The crowd, consisting of families, friends, co-workers, law enforcement and public officials and Special Olympics athletes, stayed warm and jostled around for a good view of the cone-cordoned path that stretched down the beach to the water's edge.

Then, from a countdown beginning at "9," six groups from "A" to "F" took turns dashing over the sands of Hampton Beach straight into the ocean. The tide was low, but the enthusiasm was high, and all of the Penguin Plungers made good on behalf of the pledges they had collected by fearlessly charging right in — to various degrees of immersion.

While some made it in at waist-deep, others took to the waves like their fine feathered black-and-white namesakes and enjoyed a full dunk from head to toe. Then, they beat a hasty retreat back to shore, where the crowd cheered them on while they received warm, well-deserved towels, and blankets.

Hampton Police Chief William Wrenn, looking festive in his Santa hat, beard, and boxers, said "It was invigoriating" as he wrapped up in a blanket after taking the plunge. Hampton Academy Junior High School Assistant Principal Stan Shupe — in necktie and blue bathing cap — acknowledged the Sunday afternoon dip "was a little cool." Hampton Dentist Dr. Peter Thomas (who took to the Atlantic with his dog, Jasmine) said "It was colder waiting around" for things to begin, and Hampton Selectman Brian Warburton enthused that the first annual Penguin Plunge was "Great! I loved it!" adding "It's for a great cause."

Indeed, according to one estimate, at least $114,000 was raised through this one particular fundraiser for Special Olympics New Hampshire. Channel 9's Chris Thomas said the event appeared to be "a huge success," and that interest and actual fundraising "really picked up in the last two weeks" prior to the "well-organized" event. He praised the Penguin Plunge staff for doing "a wonderful job," and observed that the Plunge was "just an incredible thing" that will go far in helping Special Olympics New Hampshire.

Following the Plunge, participants and their guests were treated to an appreciation lunch across the street at the Ashworth Hotel. There, immediate past Chairman of the Board of Directors for Special Olympics New Hampshire, Alan Harkabus, expressed his complete satisfaction with the way things had come together for the event.

Saying he was "thrilled," and that "it was nice to see the [excellent] participation," Harkabus added that "it's great to see the support for the [Special Olympics] program on the Seacoast." He said the funds would be used to help increase the number of Special Olympics athletes from 2000 to 3000 by the year 2003.

Harkabus hailed the thousands of people who volunteer their services to support Special Olympics throughout the year, and was especially grateful for those hardy souls who had braved the chilly Atlantic Ocean (and their many, many supporters) in their effort to raise much-needed funds for SONH. He also praised law enforcement personnel who participated not only in the Penguin Plunge but also in the Torch Run, an event which takes place during the summer.

In addition, Harkabus said he wanted to "graciously thank the Ashworth for letting us take over the premises" following the Plunge.

With the first annual Penguin Plunge now one for the Hampton Beach history books, and in view of its apparent premiere success ("For a first-time event, to do that well is phenomenal," said Harkabus), the SONH official is enthusiastic about future Plunges.

"It's fantastic," he says. "Come back and see us next year."

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