NEW YORK CITY (SBG) - Ask the average person to describe their ideal beach weather, and they’d likely paint a picture of a gorgeous July day with rays of sunshine warming their bare skin and a gentle breeze rippling through the air.
But for the members of the Coney Island Polar Bear Club, nothing beats a snow day.
As the club assembled at the New York Aquarium Education Hall at noon this past Sunday, many of the members chatted excitedly about Saturday’s snowstorm, displaying the same amount of enthusiasm you might expect from a child who woke up to a white blanket covering the ground and found out that schools would be closed. “Did you get to swim yesterday?” they asked each other, and those who hadn’t been able to make it listened to the stories of those who had with just a touch of envy.
Established in 1903, the Coney Island Polar Bear Club is said to be the oldest winter bathing organization in the United States. The club’s largest and most publicized event is their annual New Year’s Day Polar Bear Plunge, drawing thousands of people to the New York City beach on the first day of the year to commemorate the occasion with a quick dip into the chilly waters. A majority of attendees consider one plunge per year or even per lifetime, to be plenty, providing them with a fun experience to remember when they eventually return to Coney Island many months later to cool off on a 90-degree day. But for the members of the club, who refer to themselves as “Polar Bears,” the winter swims are a weekly routine.
According to club president Dennis Thomas, many of the members discovered their interest in winter swimming by accident. “They do the new year’s plunge, and then they want to come back,” he explained.
Even Thomas himself, who discovered the club’s existence by chance back in the 1970s, approached his first plunge thinking that it would be a one-time occurrence to check off his bucket list. Instead, it became an integral part of his life. Thomas rarely misses a weekly swim, showing up every single Sunday from November to April to lead the group into the ocean.
Newcomer Josh Gold is one of the most recent converts to the practice. He took his first swim Jan. 1 of this year and was immediately surprised by the realization that he wanted to do it again. “This is my fifth swim,” he said Sunday. “I expected to just do it once, but when I jumped into the water on New Year’s Day, it was the most awesome experience ever. I’ve been having a blast, making friends, getting the gear, and enjoying everything about it.”
There’s certainly something about the experience that keeps people coming back, whether it’s the thrill of submerging the body in frigid water, the subsequent effects that it has on the body and the mind, the sense of camaraderie that forms from the gatherings, or, most likely, a combination of these factors. While Gold’s newly found obsession is still in its early stages, Michael Ameno has been swimming with the Coney Island Polar Bear Club for 35 years.
It was a bad back that drew Ameno to the club. After Ameno discovered that ice was far more helpful for his pain than heating pads were, a friend suggested that he should attend a plunge. Now, nearly every Sunday from November to April, Ameno drives from Staten Island to spend about five to 10 minutes in the water. He doesn’t visit Coney Island in the summertime.
Ice baths and cold water therapy have a long history as a recovery tool for sore muscles. The Edwin Smith Papyrus, the oldest known surgical treatise from ancient Egypt, makes references to the usage of cold as a therapeutic agent. During the Age of Pericles, ancient Greek physician Hippocrates advocated for the benefits of both hot and cold water and often prescribed hydrotherapy for muscle and joint diseases. From these early mentions of the practice, it has spread to many cultures around the world. In Estonia and Finland, it’s common to jump into cold water following a sauna session; in China, you’ll find numerous winter swimming organizations and festivals.
The Coney Island Polar Bear Club also has roots in the worlds of recovery and wellness. Its founder, Bernarr Macfadden, was an eccentric, health-obsessed millionaire who is sometimes dubbed the father of physical culture. Macfadden attempted to start a number of wacky projects during his lifetime, from a breakfast cereal called Strengtho to a Utopian community by the name of Physical Culture City in New Jersey. Although neither of those projects saw any lasting success, the Polar Bear Club managed to stick around.
Research on the benefits of ice baths is not entirely conclusive, but despite the club’s wellness-heavy origins, it offers value to its members in ways that reach far beyond the physical. Before the group even hit the beach Sunday, the atmosphere in the Educational Hall made it obvious that the shared experience of jumping into the chilly Coney Island water has the ability to bring together New Yorkers from all walks of life and forge powerful bonds amongst them.
“These people are so warm and caring. They love one another,” said Thomas. “I’ve heard people call this their second family. It’s been pretty amazing to watch.”
And perhaps the simplest reason that people return? It’s a lot of fun. Swimmer Patricia Vogel-Heiss was already part of a group called Coney Island Brighton Beach Open Water Swimmers, or CIBBOWS, when she heard “a bunch of noise” one Sunday at Coney Island. The commotion turned out to be the lively chants and shouts of the Polar Bears, and Vogel-Heiss immediately knew that she wanted to get involved.
Now, Vogel-Heiss joins the group all winter long in every type of weather. “I once did a hail swim,” she recounted. “The hail kind of hurt when it hit the skin, but if you went in up to your neck, you could watch the hail bounce off of the water.”
For winter swimmers, the weather is seldom a deterrent, though some days present more of a challenge than others. Jonathan Van Dusen has been a member of the club for about three years, but his toughest experience took place just a few weeks ago. “It was about 40 degrees and sleeting, so it was cold in the water and painful out of the water. You’d get in and feel like you had to get out. Then you’d get out and feel like you had to get back in,” he said.
“I’ve never gotten to swim in the snow though,” he said with some disappointment in his voice.
For many of the Polar Bears, a blizzard is an optimal condition for a swim. “Whenever there’s a snowstorm, anyone who’s around will come out to do an informal swim in the snow,” said Thomas.
Danielle Mastrion completed her first snow swim as a Bear this past Saturday and documented the experience on Instagram, sharing a photo of herself on the snow-coated beach. In the photo, she’s wearing a hat, gloves, and the recommended surf boots intended to keep feet warm on the cold sand. But instead of a winter coat, Mastrion stands proudly in only a bathing suit. “No one understands the beauty of the empty beach in the snow like a Coney Islander!” she wrote in her caption.
It was through Mastrion’s Instagram posts that one of her friends became interested in joining the club. “I saw her doing it on social media and thought that it looked like fun,” said Sherwyn Prudent. Inspired by her photos, Prudent joined Mastrion Sunday to experience the cold water plunge for himself.
When asked if he was nervous before the swim, Prudent insisted that he wasn’t.
“You should be,” Mastrion joked.
Prudent shrugged it off. “It’s just cold water,” he said.
Before the group headed to the water, Thomas welcomed everyone to their weekly meeting and asked all of the first-timers to gather together for a quick briefing. Once they assembled, Thomas ran them through the routine, starting with the customary pre-swim warm up on the beach. “It’s really pretty vigorous. We’ll do maybe seven or eight jumping jacks, so please pace yourself,” he said with a smile.
For the swim itself, Thomas offered a few words of advice. “I don’t suggest diving into the water. Take a brisk walk. Once you’re in, you can dunk yourself. You can scream. And if you hit the three-minute mark, you’ll be amazed at how long you can stay in,” he said.
“But there’s no pressure and no shame,” he added.
Not all of the new swimmers were as confident as Prudent was about entering the 44-degree water. One of them asked if everyone who has gone into the ocean during past swims has made it out OK. “Our goal is to keep the lifeguards dry,” Thomas assured him.
As soon as the lifeguard arrived, the Polar Bears headed out of the Education Hall and down to the water. Some wore fluffy robes to stay warm on the walk, while others marched out in only their bathing suits.
This, for Ameno, is the toughest part. “The water is not the problem,” he said. “It’s the walk from here to the water and the walk from the water back to here without any clothes. I don’t usually bring a towel. Sometimes, you end up with icicles forming in your hair.”
On the beach, the “vigorous” warmup lasted no longer than a minute, everyone eager to take the plunge. There was a chant to accompany the jumping jacks, and the volume stayed high as members shrieked upon entering the ocean. Some stayed for only a few seconds, while others held strong for up to 20 minutes. But before anyone made their exit, the group formed one enormous circle, joining hands and voices to celebrate another week in the water.
At certain minute markers, those who remained in the water continued to form progressively smaller circles until only two swimmers remained. The sun was shining brightly, and a few people hung out on the beach or on the boardwalk to dry off after emerging. Most, however, hurried back toward the Education Hall.
Membership for the Coney Island Polar Bear Club is currently at its maximum, and though spots occasionally open up, they’re usually filled quickly. If you’re interested in testing the experience for yourself, the new year’s event makes for a good entry point. There’s no fee to participate, but a suggested minimum donation of $25 helps to raise money to give back to the Coney Island community and to aid recovery efforts associated with 2012’s Superstorm Sandy.
From coast to coast and across the globe, you’ll find plenty of other plunges happening throughout the colder months of the year. In Long Beach, New York, just an hour away from Coney Island, the Long Beach Polar Bear Club holds their annual event on Super Bowl Sunday, and registration is still open for this February’s swim. It’s called the Super Bowl Splash and serves as a fundraiser for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. In the U.K., most plunges take place on Christmas Day or Boxing Day; New Zealanders take their dips in late June. And during Antarctica’s plunge, the water is so cold that participants are tethered to a boat for an additional safety measure.
After completing his first plunge, Prudent was all smiles, though he admitted that he was unprepared for one aspect of the experience — and it wasn’t the feeling of the water itself. “Cold is cold,” he said. “The shock wasn’t the temperature but the effects that it had on my breath. I’m still trying to get my breathing under control. It really took my breath away.”
Thomas knows what to expect after years of experience, but no matter how many times he jumps into the water, his body never quite gets used to the feeling. “Sometimes, right as I’m going into the water, I wonder why I’m doing this,” he said. But it’s a feeling that he consistently craves, and each time that he goes in, he’s undeniably glad that he did.