In case you don’t know, the Polar Bear Club is a group of men and women who go swimming in the Atlantic Ocean of Coney Island (and other locales throughout the US) in winter. The Coney Island Polar Bears host a big event on New Year’s Day where several hundred people dash into the really, really cold water. The club is so popular that they have to hold a lottery for new membership.
I met the core members of the Polar Bear Club at Nathan’s one November morning, including their president at that time, Lou Scarcella, a retired homicide detective. The five men had just come from the sea and were warming themselves with coffee before heading over to sit in a sauna at a spa at Sea Gate down the road. The Polar Bear officers go in the water almost every day. And all winter long you can find people, I assume are from Siberia, swimming in the waters near Brighton Beach.
The Polar Bears invited me to come back and swim with them sometime.
I’m usually up for an adventure, but I’m also cold natured. I think 80 degrees is the perfect temperature and the last summer I’d lived in Austin before moving to New York, there had been 100 days of 100-degree weather and I didn’t have air conditioning in my house or car. I was used to heat. This was my first winter in New York and I generally wore so many layers, I looked like the Pillsbury Dough Boy. It took me a month to make the decision to join them.
On a frigid morning between Christmas and New Year’s Day, I stepped out of the women’s locker room at end of Stillman Avenue wearing a bathing suit. The Coney Island beach is a couple hundred feet wide and gave me plenty of time to chicken out, but I didn’t. The long walk was helpful in cooling down my body so that wading into the sea wasn’t such a shock. Not such a shock, but still a shock. It was damn cold.
Swimming was out of the question. Bobbing and chattering my teeth was the best I could do. The Polar Bear members kept telling me this was good for my health and I kept trying to figure out how. I was in the water for about 10 minutes. I was ready to exit after 30 seconds, but I knew this was going to be my only polar bear experience, so I forced myself to stay as long as I could bear it (no pun intended) Afterwards, I went to the Sea Gate spa and sat in a hot tub for 30 minutes to thaw.
I did go to the big Polar Bear New Year’s Day gala and watched a few hundred people shouting and screaming as they ran into the ocean. I enjoyed watching as I stood there in my fur-lined boots and long down coat. More power to ‘em!
Post by Alana Cash