OLD ORCHARD BEACH – Judging by the bright sunshine, the mild temperatures, the huge crowd and the abundance of bikinis and swim trunks, it could have been July. Instead, the throngs filled the beach to watch the 24th annual New Year’s Day Lobster Dip to benefit Special Olympics Maine.

Taking advantage of the unseasonably warm weather were 322 dippers, who raised $82,000 to support training and competitive events for Maine children and adults with intellectual disabilities.

“This is our largest fundraiser,” said Lisa Bird, who handles public relations for Special Olympics Maine. “It sets the tone for the year.”

The organization has a yearly budget of $1 million and six paid staff members, Bird said. It will host 62 athletic events this year.

“The Winter Games are only four weeks away,” said Phil Geelhoed, president and CEO of Special Olympics Maine. “We have over 500 athletes registered for the games taking place at Sugarloaf.”

Before the bathers ran into the water, event emcee and WGME-TV news anchor Jeff Peterson announced that the air temperature was 43 degrees and the water was even warmer at 45. Peterson took a dip in the ocean before the event was over.

“It’s balmy,” said Peter McVane, who joined with Rocco Frenzilli to be the first to enter the water. “It’s easy conditions today.”

McVane, an officer with the South Portland Police Department, and Frenzilli, who teaches at Portland High School, are always the first to wade in. The pair are members of the Portland Rugby Club and the founders of the Lobster Dip.

Frenzilli sported a lobster hat in honor of the occasion, and McVane wore face paint, a lobster tie and a reflective police vest.

And they weren’t the only ones who dressed up for the plunge. The 10 members of Team Raymond all donned red felt lobster hats.

Before the dip, first-timer and Team Raymond member Ed Gagne of Windham joked that to prepare for the cold plunge, he’s been putting “the trash out with no shirt on since Thanksgiving.”

Special Olympics coach John Keller captained Team Raymond, which has raised more than $20,000 for Special Olympics Maine in the past five years.

In addition to hosting the post-dip party and donating its facilities to Special Olympics Maine, The Brunswick hotel and restaurant also fielded one of the event’s largest teams. All 13 team members donned Boston Bruins jerseys and wore face paint. The Brunswick head chef Don Hill even jumped into the ocean carrying a handmade replica of the Stanley Cup.

“We raised over $7,000 as a team,” said captain Katherine LaCasse, whose family owns The Brunswick.

“The weather’s great and the water’s cold and you couldn’t ask for a better cause,” said Gary Purington of American Legion Post 150 in Mechanic Falls.

Because the weather was so mild, Purington strolled up the beach after the dip with fellow Legion members. They were all bare-chested and none was shivering. The post has fielded a Lobster Dip team for almost a dozen years.

A group of 20-year-olds were among those taking the plunge for the first time. Libby Bernier of Poland, Sara Sands of Minot and Sophie Geelhoed of Poland splashed into the Atlantic wearing bikinis and Mardi Gras beads.

“At first it was OK,” said Bernier, “but then we went under and we were like, ‘Let’s get out of here.’“

But, Sands said, “it wasn’t as bad as we expected it to be.”

Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at:

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