Coney Island Polar Bear Club

Americana, Festivals, Seasonal, Traditions
on December 26, 2012
Thomas G. McGann Winter swimmers take the plunge at Coney Island Beach in Brooklyn, N.Y.

On a sunny but brisk winter day, Jeremy Edmunds, 34, scans the Atlantic Ocean, peels off clothing down to his black swim trunks, and prepares for an afternoon dip in the cold, choppy water along Coney Island Beach in Brooklyn, N.Y.

At 1 o’clock sharp, as someone blows into a conch shell to signal the beginning of the beach’s annual New Year’s Day swim, Edmunds runs screaming into the ocean until he is waist-deep in the frigid water. He dives headfirst into a wave and swims a few strokes before emerging to splash Angie Su, 30, a bikini-clad friend from Forest Hills, N.Y. Amid laughter and cheers, they quickly run back to the sandy shore to towel off.

“I feel very cold, and also quite revitalized,” says Edmunds, of Durham, N.C. “It was really uncomfortable, but that’s part of the challenge. If it wasn’t uncomfortable, it wouldn’t be a ritual of any significance.”

Edmunds and Su were among an estimated 3,000 swimmers who took the plunge during last year’s event, one of the nation’s oldest organized New Year’s Day swims and sponsored by the Coney Island Polar Bear Club, among America’s oldest winter swim clubs.

“It’s my 10th time!” exclaims James Oliva, 26, of Brooklyn, standing on the beach with three friends. “When I go down and up in the water, it feels refreshing, rejuvenating, like I was born again.

It’s a rush.”

Fountain of health
Such feelings of exhilaration are exactly what prompted Bernarr Macfadden to establish the Coney Island Polar Bear Club in 1903. An early advocate of physical fitness, natural foods and exercise, Macfadden believed that submerging in chilly water helped build strength and endurance.

“He thought winter swimming promoted general health and virility,” says Dennis Thomas, 57, the club’s current president.

Centuries ago in Europe, cold-weather swims were viewed as a way to revitalize health, relieve stress and cleanse the spirit. The custom eventually found favor among some Americans, too. In Boston, members of the L Street Brownies polar bear club trace their group’s roots to the 1860s, when Civil War soldiers and veterans swam in the chilly Atlantic. They believed the cold water warded off the diseases that had killed thousands of troops during the conflict.

Today, members of the Boston club swim outside frequently throughout the winter season, and club president Jack Dever believes the regular dips both boost the swimmers’ immune systems and enhance their moods.

“It gives you a buzz, kind of like a natural high,” says Dever, 72. “It releases the endorphins in your brain, like when you exercise.”

While the overall health benefits of winter swimming have not been studied extensively, many members of the Coney Island Polar Bear Club—who rush into the frigid ocean each Sunday afternoon from November through April—swear that they never get sick, including longtime member Luis Padilla, of Manhattan.

“The day after, you feel like a young person,” says Padilla, who joined the group in 1980. “I’m going to be 70 years old, and the day after, I feel like 45.”

A cool trend
While weekly winter swims are not routine for most people, a growing number of thrill-seekers are warming to at least an annual dip on New Year’s Day.

Organized swims on Jan. 1 have grown in popularity in recent years with droves of dippers dunking themselves into frigid oceans, rivers and lakes across the nation. Polar plunge events have surfaced from Bar Harbor, Maine, to Seattle, Wash. In Chicago, the turnout grew from eight swimmers in 1998 to 250 in 2012.

“I think there are a lot of people with a carpe diem look at life,” says Chicago Polar Bear Club founder Leesa Drake, 44, “and those are the folks who seem to be easily persuaded to brave the cold.”

While bundled-up spectators watch in bemusement, each swimmer has his—or her—own reason for taking the plunge.

“A lot of people want to try it one time,” says Thomas, of the Coney Island club. “For others, starting the new year with something that’s very distinct from your daily-life routine is a way to separate the past from the future.”

Last year, Ali Iwanicki, 28, of Brooklyn, emerged from the icy water at Coney Island—proud for beginning the new year with a bold, memorable act. “I’m freezing, and my heart is pounding,” she says, dripping wet. “I have a list of 30 things I want to do before I’m 30, and this is on it.”

Connie von Hagen, 56, of Huntington, N.Y., attended her fourth consecutive swim with husband Bob, 57. “We don’t go out on New Year’s Eve,” she says. “We save ourselves for today. The best part is seeing so many people smiling, laughing and yelling.”

Many New Year’s Day plunges are organized to raise money for charitable causes.

“We call it ‘freezin’ for a reason,’” says Michael Smith, 42, a spokesman for Camp Sunshine in Casco, Maine, which uses money raised from the Coney Island swim to provide camping experiences to children with life-threatening diseases.

Chilling out
Diehard dippers approach winter swimming as a season-long activity, not just once a year.

About 150 core members of the Coney Island Polar Bear Club swim together every Sunday afternoon. They include professionals, blue-collar workers, retirees and students; about one-third are women, and the youngest regular participant is 12.

“We all have personal individual reasons for doing it. For me, it clears my head,” says Thomas, who works as a marketing director for a software company.

Ginger Connell, 54, of Middle Village, N.Y., enjoys the sheer fun and silliness of jumping into the ice-cold ocean. “It makes you feel like you’re a kid,” she says.

At the start of each meeting, Thomas blows a conch shell to call members to the beach. The “polar bears” stand in a large circle on the sand, perform a few jumping jacks and jog toward the water together. In the ocean, they re-form their circle and then disperse.

“It’s an activity that is only about itself and the intensity of the moment—being in the frigid water,” Thomas says. “It just takes you somewhere else.”