To Polar Bears, cold-water plunge is cheap therapy, nature's church

Snowflakes fall as Coney Island Polar Bears prepare to take a dunk in the ocean

On the plus side, the ocean waves were rolling, not frozen in mid-curl, and the calendar read March, so the city's third-coldest February on record was over.

Nevertheless, it was undeniably, brutally cold as snow fell on the sand at Coney Island on Sunday and wind whipped in off the gray Atlantic. In other words, it was a perfect day for a swim, said Louis Padilla as he and about 50 members of the Polar Bear Club ambled over the icy boardwalk, scampered across the snow-covered sand, and plunged into the water for a few frozen moments.

Never has foul weather kept Coney Island's Polar Bears from their 112-year-old Sunday ritual, which members swear boosts the immune system, alleviates everything from depression to arthritis, and makes winter fun. Rarely has that been as important as during this winter of record-high snow and record-low temperatures.

"It's like sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, all rolled into one. It really perks you up," said Tom McGann, a Polar Bear since 1988. "And you get to see people in their bikinis in the winter."

The average temperature in New York City last month was about 24 degrees, the coldest since 1934. Sunday was not much warmer, hovering between 29 and 30. Light flurries thickened into full flakes as Polar Bears gathered about noon and began preparing for their 1 p.m. dunk, which takes place each Sunday from November until April.

"The first time is the worst. Then you get used to it and you don't want to miss it," said Padilla, 72, who had stripped down to a pair of electric blue swim trunks. Every Sunday for 35 years, Padilla has ridden the subway from his apartment near Times Square to take part in the Polar Bear plunge, which he says has eliminated arthritis pain that kept him on medication and had forced him to walk with a cane.

"I forgot I have pain. I really forgot," Padilla said.

As he spoke, a room of the New York Aquarium, which serves as the club members' changing area, filled with men and women dressed in bulky down, fur hats, gloves and heavy boots. They quickly began transforming themselves into creatures more suitable for the surroundings, where mermaid drawings and aquariums alive with sea horses, sand crabs and turtles evoke a warm, beachy atmosphere.

Bikinis and bright swim trunks replaced the dark grays and blacks of winter wear. Several Polar Bears wore waterproof gloves and booties, which they say make the swim more tolerable.

One man, a jogger who runs on the boardwalk whatever the weather, trotted in from the snow, sweat frozen into tiny icicles that clung to the hairs on his bare chest.

Some people, like Steve Beltzer, seemed to be convincing themselves to swim. "I've got a cold. I don't know — am I going to go in or am I not going in?" Beltzer said to no one in particular as he wandered inside from the cold.

Asked how long he had been a Polar Bear, Beltzer hesitated. "I don't know. My brain is frozen," he replied, before going on to sing the praises of frigid-water swimming even as he compared the sensation to "a thousand little knives stabbing at you."

"It's mind over matter," said Beltzer, who got in the habit of cold-water swims during a decade living in Copenhagen. "As long as you don't fight it, you're fine. If you fall and your body is tensed, you break bones. If you go into the cold water all tensed up, you won't be able to handle it."

With that, he began stripping down to orange and white tropical print swim trunks.

Newcomers signed waivers relieving the Polar Bear Club of responsibility in case of a negative reaction to the cold water, which was in the low 30s. McGann gave them a brief lecture on how best to handle the cold.

"It's not a competition," McGann said, advising against wearing T-shirts or extra clothing, "because it's gonna get cold and wet, and it won't make a hell of a difference."

With that, the crowd, accompanied by a couple of lifeguards dragging a rescue basket just in case, headed into the elements, shedding outer robes and fur hats when they reached the water's edge. Whoops and hollers filled the air as they formed a huge circle and did some jumping jacks.

Then, the Polar Bears headed into the surf, walking straight ahead and robot-like, as if they knew the slightest vacillation would derail their resolve.

Elliot Reed, a tall, fit young man in a bright orange swim cap and a torso covered in tattoos, including a polar bear under one arm, led the pack. He quickly dunked himself beneath the waves, dolphin-like. Beltzer picked up a jagged chunk of ice that resembled a fist-sized glass sculpture from the sand and showed it to some onlookers. "Isn't it beautiful?" he said before heading into the water.

Soon, all 50 or so Polar Bears joined hands in a huge circle, jogging in place in the waist-deep water as passersby stared from the snow-covered sand.

For some, the dunk lasted barely a minute. For others, it lasted several minutes. A few yelped in shock.

That's typical, said Capri Djatiasmoro, a longtime cold-water distance swimmer. She called the effect of a Polar Bear dunk "like a meditation — a very short, abbreviated meditation."

Once the initial shock wears off, "it gets quiet," said Djatiasmoro, who was filming Sunday's swim, not taking part in it.

The hardest part for Polar Bear club members is getting out of the water and facing the air, which on many days is colder than the ocean.

There was little tarrying on the shore as swimmers jogged out of the waves and headed back across the wide beach and boardwalk to the aquarium, where warmth and clothes awaited.

Before entering, they dunked their sandy feet into a bucket of warm water. Then, they quickly began pulling on dry clothes.

"I'm not a big fan of winter, but this makes me come outdoors and do fun stuff," Reed said. "And you sleep like a baby."

Abiodun Bello grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, where the average February temperature is 84. His friends back there think he's crazy, he said, but he has not been sick since he started Polar Bear swims five years ago. "It's the cheapest therapy for your head and your body," Bello said as he pulled warm clothes over his orange swimsuit.

Padilla agreed. "I want to do this forever," he said, even though his wife would prefer that he spend Sunday at church with her.

"I say no," he said. "This is my church here."

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