Thanks to the Corps, plungers
are safe to enjoy annual ice bath © Feb. 27, 2009, Norwich University Office of Communications

A group of Norwich cadets fire off a round of push-ups before racing into the frigid water of Lake Champlain to conclude the Feb. 7, 2009, Penguin Plunge fundraiser.

photo by David W. SmithNorwich cadets fire off a round of push-ups before racing into the frigid water of Lake Champlain to conclude the Feb. 7, 2009, Penguin Plunge fundraiser.

Alison Lanz, a member of Norwich University’s Corp of Cadets, learned that swimming in extremely cold water can humble the toughest person.

“On the way back to the shore, I thought that they were going to have to save me because I just couldn’t move my limbs any faster,” she said.

Each year, hundreds of Vermonters jump into the icy waters of Lake Champlain during a fundraising drive for Special Olympics of Vermont—and it couldn’t happen without the cadets.

In February 2009, nearly 80 cadets from the Northfield, Vt., private military college stood in freezing temperatures facing biting, 20 mph wind gusts. With a sense of calm and courtesy, bundled-up students helped out with all aspects of the event, from crowd control to escorting “plungers” to the lake.

I think without having the cadets involved, we wouldn’t be able
to do this.

~ Kim Bookless,
Vermont Special Olympics fundraising events manager

“Honestly, it’s a cool thing,” said Matt Allard, a sophomore history major, as he awaited the start of events.

With the weather, rowdy crowd, safety concerns and the intense logistical planning, volunteering at the Penguin Plunge can be challenging and requires Corps members to plan and implement a chain of command. It gives cadets an opportunity, however, to get out in the community and demonstrate their commitment to public service.

Despite the chilly air, it’s also a fun event.

“I thought it would be kind of cool, especially when they said we could jump in at the end, which I’m going to do,” said Steven Yates, ’10, an engineering management major.

For the event, an area of Lake Champlain is cleared of ice. Close to the City of Burlington’s waterfront, there are heated tents—men’s and women’s changing rooms and another where plungers gather before their jumps—plus a volunteer tent and a large staging area. The plungers sprint along a short footpath to the lake, down a ramp and then run, jump or belly flop into the water. There are crowds on either side of the footpath and along the waterfront. Some years there are 5,000 spectators. Cadets orchestrate all crowd control and direct traffic, including pedestrians and cyclists who want to use the bike path, which cuts through the event. It’s no easy task.

David Perez, a Class of 2011 history major, was tasked with opening a tent door to let plungers burst out onto the path. He awaited the signal to let the next team emerge.

“It’s going pretty good, but this is crazy,” he said, referring to the wind.

Things grew crazier at the end of the event, when a hoard of cadets took the plunge. Instead of running in and out at a feverish pace like most participants, Corps members marched slowly to their fate. Most did push-ups before jumping in, and a few even swam out to the end of the open water, touched the ice and swam back. Lanz, a third-year criminal justice major, went for the gusto.

“I figured that you only live once, so we might as well!” she said. “I was just thinking that this [was] nuts because I was already freezing while waiting in the tent. ... It was the coldest that I have ever been. I had decided to swim to the ice, so as everyone else was leaving the water, I was swimming past them in the opposite direction.”

Kyle Mason, ’10, a Studies in War and Peace major, said he plunged simply because he thought it would be fun. “It was refreshing,” he said.

Cadets’ service at this event is serious business for the Special Olympics. Kim Bookless, the organization’s fundraising events manager, said Norwich students make up more than half of the volunteer base. “I think without having the cadets involved, we wouldn’t be able to do this,” she said. “I’m sure it wasn’t the first thing they wanted to do on a Saturday morning. ... I want to thank them for their participation.”

The Penguin Plunge is the nonprofit’s major annual fundraiser, and brings in hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Norwich students, who choose to join the Corps of Cadets or lead a traditional student lifestyle, have been assisting with the event for 14 years. Eric Braman, who previously worked in the Norwich Commandant’s Office and now works for the Norwich University Applied Research Institute, a computer-security think tank, has been organizing the cadets’ involvement for a decade. He said the public nature of the event is great for students, because they do so much behind-the-scenes volunteering, but people outside of Norwich rarely see a glimpse of the good work.

“And, it’s for a great cause,” said Braman. “The Vermont Special Olympics does wonderful work for special athletes.”