At the Newport Penguin Plunge: The brave leave luau for freezing waters

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Scott Whitehouse of Newport took the Penguin Plunge Sunday. Though he's new to the area, he raised $300 for Special Olympics Vermont.  Photos by David Dudley
Scott Whitehouse of Newport took the Penguin Plunge Sunday. Though he’s new to the area, he raised $300 for Special Olympics Vermont. Photos by David Dudley

copyright the Chronicle February 4, 2015

by David Dudley

NEWPORT — Before the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge took the Internet by storm, there was the Penguin Plunge. Now in its thirteenth year, the Penguin Plunge drew participants from all over the Northeast Kingdom to raise money and awareness about the Special Olympics by taking a dip in the frigid waters of Lake Memphremagog.

Liza Reed, special events manager at Special Olympics Vermont, has organized the event for the past three years. At Sunday’s Plunge, she said they were hoping to match last year’s mark of $30,000.

“We have teams from all over the Northeast Kingdom,” Ms. Reed said. “We have 130 participants this year, so we’re confident that we will at least match last year’s number. That is, if we don’t surpass it.”

But who in their right mind would willingly walk into Lake Memphremagog in February? The air temperature was negative six degrees Fahrenheit, and the water was, at best, 32 degrees Fahrenheit, according to Ms. Reed.

The participants gathered in the Gateway Center before the event. From the look of things, nobody was worried about the cold. In fact, the event looked more like a luau. Participants donned shorts and tank tops. Some were shirtless.

The Hornet Holligans, from Enosberg, were doing the limbo. Zak Nolan tried to see how low he could go as the teams lined up for their turn in the water.

“This is our third year doing this,” Mr. Nolan said. “We just love the Plunge.”

Announcer Tod Pronto of Newport spun jams like “Eye of the Tiger,” by Survivor, in an attempt to hype the participants. But they didn’t need much help: they were raring to get wet.

“I’ve done eight of these now,” Mr. Pronto said. “This year wasn’t as big as the ones we got a few years ago, but the spirit’s still the same. People are still thrilled to be doing this.”

Mr. Pronto, who has taken the plunge three times, said that the water isn’t the worst part.

“The worst part is thinking about getting in,” Mr. Pronto said. “It’s the anticipation. That’s the killer.”

The Plunge goes something like this: Get dressed, get psyched, run into the water, run out, run into the nearby warming tents, put on some dry clothes, and then go get some chili, or some spicy Thai food, at one of the restaurants on Main Street.

One of the great pleasures of participating in the Plunge is imagining a name for the team. There were the North Point Bi-Polars, the North Country Federal Credit Union Numb-Brrrrs, and the Pick and Shovel Ice-Pickers.

But people don’t necessarily need a team to participate. Nor does one have to be a social butterfly to raise money.

From left:  Maya Auger of Glover, Celine Lamadeleine of Newport, and Tyra Scelza of Glover can't help but smile as they exit the frigid waters of Lake Memphremagog.  The air temperature was negative 6 degrees Fahrenheit, while the water temperature was estimated to be 32 degrees Fahrenheit.
From left: Maya Auger of Glover, Celine Lamadeleine of Newport, and Tyra Scelza of Glover can’t help but smile as they exit the frigid waters of Lake Memphremagog. The air temperature was negative 6 degrees Fahrenheit, while the water temperature was estimated to be 32 degrees Fahrenheit.

Scott Whitehouse of Newport participated in the Plunge but had no team. Despite not knowing anyone, he said, he had raised $300 for the cause. A horned hat crowned his head, and he wielded a heavy hammer as he ran into the water, screaming and smiling.

“My brother is handicapped,” Mr. Whitehouse said. “And I used to work with handicapped people. I know the struggles that they face. That’s why I do this.”

Money raised by events like the Penguin Plunge are used for Special Olympics programs around the state, including athletic competitions, leadership development programs, and health and fitness initiatives for people with special needs.

According to a press release, Special Olympics Vermont is committed to fostering inclusion and acceptance of people with intellectual disabilities through sports that allow them to showcase their gifts and abilities.

The Newport Fire Department was on hand at the Plunge. Chief Jamie LaClair and Neil Morrissette stood at the edge of the pool to make sure participants remained safe.

A giant dancing penguin was on hand as well. As each team of participants stormed out of the Gateway Center, the Penguin greeted them with enthusiastic encouragement.

The Passumpsic team included a number of young girls. After a few moments in the warming tent, they seemed to be glowing.

Maya Auger of Glover had just taken her second Plunge.

“It was a little scary,” Maya said. “But I just ran in!”

Her teammate Tyra Scelza of Glover agreed, offering an equation to illustrate her point.

“The water was cold,” Tyra said, still shivering. “It was freezing times infinity.”

Ms. Reed said that events like the Penguin Plunge happen all around the world.

“We call the participant’s drive 32 degrees of courage,” Ms. Reed said. “Like those who compete in the Special Olympics, the Plunge requires great courage.   We’re thankful that all of these people — participants and volunteers — have the courage to come out and support the Special Olympics.”

contact David Dudley at [email protected]

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