Anthony Edwards / Staff Photo
Freezing-cold water greets participants in the annual Penguin Plunge held Saturday morning at Lake Paran in Bennington. The temperature was 13 degrees.
BENNINGTON — The two words most frequently muttered Saturday on the banks of Lake Paran were “freezing” and “crazy.”
“Freezing” was used to describe the 9-degree temperature, aggravated by a steady breeze that occasionally kicked up into bursts of frigid wind.
“Crazy” was how the crowd judged the people who, despite those conditions, jumped into the water for the Penguin Plunge, part of the North Bennington Winter Festival.
The event is an annual fundraiser for the Special Olympics. Organizer Liza Reed and an estimated 120 participants raised about $20,000 in entry fees and sponsorships.
The stereotypical participants in such events are large people with bearish builds. Plenty of those took the plunge Saturday, but in line just before the event began they seemed outnumbered by small teenagers with little in the way of natural insulation.
“I think Special Olympics is a good cause and Penguin Plunge is really fun,” said 15-year-old Katianna Nardone of North Bennington, a veterant of two previous plunges. “It’s just a lot of adrenaline. You just run in and don’t really think about it.”
Fourteen-year-old Sebastian Durfee of Shaftsbury said he was there because he did not want to be shown up by a friend who participated the previous year, while Palestinian exchange student Ahmad Ladadwah said he kept hearing how fun it was.
“I just keep moving,” Ladadwah said, noting that he was accustomed to a much warmer climate.
Ten-year-old Molly Cohen of Bennington admitted she had “no idea” why she was there.
“I’m scared to death,” she said.
Fear notwithstanding, the plunge had been her idea and she dragged her father into it.
“It’s the stupidest thing we’ve ever done,” John Cohen said. “It’s for a good cause, though.”
Reed said there were no age requirements and that all participants signed a medical waiver.
“It’s up to you and your doctor to decide if it’s safe for you,” she said.
A crew in cold-water rescue gear waited at the edges of the large square hole that had been cut in the ice — a couple of them took turns doing flips into the water — and heated tents were available for participants to warm up and dry off.
Several people charged into the water and dove headfirst, though a few only made it calf-deep before changing their minds and making a hasty return to dry land.
High-pitched shrieks and triumphant roars were heard with each group, and attire ranged from Speedos or bikinis to folks decked out in shirts and ties, as well as a number of costumes.
A group of soldiers were among the last in. One, as his comrades emerged, continued to slowly walk to the far end of the ice-hole, where he stopped, pivoted, saluted, and dropped straight down under the water.
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