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Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Locals Take the Plunge for Special Olympics Cause

 Locals Take the Plunge for 
Special Olympics Cause
By Mike Lauterborn
(for Westport News)

Westport, CT – Water temperature 38 degrees. Air temperature 45. Insanity levels off the charts.

Those were the readings Saturday afternoon before some 450 people bravely raced into the chilly waters off Compo Beach. The daring dip was all part of the Penguin Plunge benefiting Special Olympics of Connecticut. The site took on a festival atmosphere, with rock music blaring across the beach, wacky costumes and general good cheer and revelry.

Seeing that everything was running like clockwork was Gail Feinstein of USI Insurance and the volunteer coordinator of the event. “I’ve been associated with this for over a decade since it began and when it was a lot smaller,” she said. “This year we’re on track for a fundraising goal of $130,000.”

While many would consider the day’s weather to be on the bitter side, the sun was high in the sky and there was not even a suggestion of snow. “The favorable weather has helped attract people,” said Feinstein, “including a young man in his 80s who has been plunging here every year.”

Assisting Feinstein with event coordination were 80 volunteers, helping with pre-registration, incentives, crowd control and greeting people. A separate group managed a raffle. Westport Police, Westport Fire and a dive team were also onsite to ensure safety in and out of the water.

The Westport Plunge is one of several plunges Special Olympics sponsors during the year around the state. Individuals, teams from high schools, families, companies and groups from the SOCT programs all participate.

A twist to the event is the attire participants can choose to wear. “You can put on anything to take the plunge,” said Feinstein. As an encouragement to spur creativity, Fox 95.9 radio was onsite hosting a costume contest. As such, pirates, ninja turtles, leprechauns and other characters roamed the beach.

A consistent wardrobe item among all participants though was a bowtie. These were various colors depending on the fundraising level a person achieved and given to individuals upon check-in. The minimum funding level was $75.

Besides individual donations, local corporate sponsors like Lexus and USI Insurance provided support, as well as organizations at the state level.

Because of the size of the participating field, the Plunge had to be conducted in five waves. Groups were fairly evenly divided in numbers and organized by teams. One of the largest groups was St. Joseph’s with over 75 members.

“This is the 13th year I’m doing this,” said Pete Dennin of Team Happy Feet, which had comparatively more modest numbers but no less enthusiasm. “We’re six people, including my brother Dave, who was the first Special Olympics athlete to do this, and my daughter Abby,” he said. “Every year when I step out of the water, I say I’m never doing this again – your feet take three hours to warm up. But I always return. The first year, maybe 40 people participated. It’s been great to see the numbers explode.”

The waves were in and out of the water in a matter of minutes and as participants hurried back up the beach, they shouted and fist-pumped and scooped up towels.

Madison Snyder, with friend Katie Morgan, was among them. “We are freezin’ for a reason, that’s for sure,” she joked. “This is my fifth year and it seems to get easier every year. It’s a great cause and I love doing it, and will be back for sure.” 

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