By Nancy Rineman
Hampton Union, February 5, 2008
[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online]
Sunday had all the appearances of a crowded day at Hampton Beach, save for the winter hats and coats worn by more than 1,000 onlookers huddled together to cheer on the more than 800 supporters of New Hampshire Special Olympics.
The air temperature was in the low 40s and Saturday's moderate winds were a distant memory for the three groups, or "waves," of people of all ages making the plunge into the Atlantic shortly after noontime.
Hampton Police Chief Jamie Sullivan called the day and the event, "wonderful," as he prepared to head into the surf.
"It's very exciting for Special Olympics. It's a nice, warm day for the 'Chilly Willies,'" Sullivan said, talking about his Penguin Plunge team.
News cameras and photographers mixed in with the Hampton Police, Hampton Fire & Rescue, and the two departments' ATV units on sand, while a force of about 14 from the New Hampshire Fish & Game Dive Team treaded water offshore. Hampton's summer lifeguard staff, led by veteran lifeguard Jim Donohue, was at the ready as well, keeping a close eye on all who braved the winter waters on both their entry and return.
Twenty-four plungers from Berlin were introduced as the "North Country Moose Tracks," all wearing flannel pajama-like pants sporting, of course, a moose motif.
"We reached our goal of $20,000," said Judy Lemelin.
Raymond Couture of Stark, another of the "Moose Tracks" team, was plunging at Hampton Beach for the seventh year.
"It's beautiful; it's warm," he said, adding, "This is a heat wave."
As the first wave of hardy souls readied themselves for the first "wave," Mike Quinn, president of New Hampshire Special Olympics, said, "It's excellent, with a crowd of up to 750 people on track to raise half a million dollars."
Less than an hour after it started, the beach version of the event moved inside and upstairs to the Casino Ballroom to listen to a live band while feasting on soups, chowders, sandwiches, and all the fixings donated by The Galley Hatch Restaurant.
Katie Petruno of North Hampton, a freshman at the University of Delaware, was home this week and helping her summer employer, The Galley Hatch, serving up steaming bowls of beef stew and hearty vegetable soup.
"I think it's great," Petruno said. She said she had gone to the event, to watch, other years, but this was the first time she had an inside look at the Casino festivities.
Hampton Deputy Fire Chief Steve Benotti reported that one minor injury was treated by his department before that individual went to the hospital. Benotti said in addition to the regular duty crew, seven extra members of Hampton Fire & Rescue were working at the event.
"We had four guys in dry suits at the water's edge, just in case," Benotti added.
Deputy Police Chief Richard Sawyer, Sunday's event director, called this year's Penguin Plunge "the smoothest operation we've had so far."
The award for the "flock raising the most money" went to "The Frozen Section," a team of 48 from Keene, who raised $36,400 for N.H. Special Olympics. But it was the local team, "Chilly Willies," who received the "Flock of Excellence" award for exhibiting superior team spirit. Members included local favorites Hampton Police Chief Jamie Sullivan, Dan Dolan, Kevin Blais, Kevin Reusch and Jack Boland, who along with the rest of their team of 20 plungers raised $20,000.
With a drum roll and all eyes on the stage at the Casino, anticipation was high and the cheering ear-splitting when the goal of 800 plungers was in fact 807, and the half-million dollar hopes were exceeded with a grand total of $546,681, all in the name of Special Olympics.
"It's been a great experience," said Paul Labonte, treasurer of N.H. Special Olympics. Labonte, who is CFO of SIAA, Inc., in Hampton, said he became involved in Special Olympics after attending one of the events in which his wife was involved.
"The events are phenomenal," Labonte said. "Just the faces on the athletes participating ...; they're all on cloud nine. That's why we volunteer."View more photos on flickr