The Coney Island Polar Bear Club found thousands plunging into the icy Atlantic on Jan. 1, 2017. (Credit: Getty Images / Yana Paskova)
Credit: Coney Island Polar Bears
The last remaining official winter swimming club in Coney Island
The Polar Bear Club is not only one of the oldest organizations of its kind in the United States; it has also outlived competing winter swimming social clubs at Coney Island beach.
These included groups like the Tenex Icelanders and the Iceberg Athletic Club. Often, they were associated with the bathhouses that lined the boardwalk but no longer exist. The clubs flourished through in the mid-20th century, but began to fade as members aged and the bathhouses closed. In the 1990s, there were four left.
Though little is known about the Tenex Icelanders, the Iceberg Athletic Club rivaled the Polar Bears in feats of cold-weather bravura. Founded in 1918 by an NYPD detective, the goal was "year-round swimming." Charles Denson, of the Coney Island History Project, said initiates used to have to lug a 50-pound brick of ice down the beach wearing nothing but a bathing suit in the winter and swim 200 yards each swim. They would spend their time out of the water throwing 14-pound medicine balls.
Among its members were Joe Rollino, a former Coney Island strongman and Olympic athlete who lived to be 103 years old.
Rollino said of the Polar Bears in an interview with Denson: "These are not swimmers. These are exhibitionists. They run in the water up to their ankles."
But, in fact, today's Polar Bears count among them long-distance winter swimmers who travel the world to compete.
Credit: Cristian Salazar
You're not a wimp if you wear shoes and gloves
One common myth is that Polar Bears swim in the nude or near nude, with little more than a bathing suit. That's far from the truth. Many Bears take to the bone-chilling water wearing hats, caps and even gloves and shoes, usually made of neoprene. "That really makes a difference," Handy said. "Your feet don't get cold at all." He said as long as your extremities are warm, swimmers can last longer in the chill. "Some of the old-timers don't use anything," he admitted. "They just go right in." On a recent Sunday swim, Bears had on shoes or boots, but also a variety of hats, including Santa caps.
Credit: Cristian Salazar
The club's president will sometimes blow on a conch before a swim
Each Sunday's swim is a carefully choreographed series of rituals. After suiting up in the clubhouse, which today is located at the Education Hall of the New York Aquarium, the members walk out onto the beach in robes, towels or just their bathing suits.
Before taking to the water, the members spread out in a circle with the amusement park to their backs and do jumping jacks and chant to get their blood flowing. Some chants begin, "Shrinkage comes and shrinkage goes, Monday morning know one knows." In days past, the president would also blow on a conch as a "call of the sea" -- supposedly to summon King Neptune from the depths.
But Thomas admits the conch rarely makes an appearance these days. "I'm so poor at it, it sounds like someone beating a baby seal," he said.
Once in the water, the group forms a big circle, holding hands and shouting and hollering. Then they break for a free swim.
Credit: Cristian Salazar
Some members of the club get tattoos of polar bears
Some members of the Polar Bears show their devotion to the club with patches on jackets and even tattoos.
Jim McDonnell, 59, of the Bronx, said his tattoo combines two things close to his heart: a polar bear and a roller coaster.
"It was the first tattoo I ever got," he said before a recent Sunday swim. He said the club was like a second family to him and his wife, who is also a member. "In the summer, you miss them all," he said. "By doing this, the winter goes so much faster."
Credit: Charles Denson / Coney Island History Project
Some polar bears prefer colder air temperatures
Some members say the colder it is outside, the better it is for a swim. "When you do go into the water, it feels warmer," said member Bruce Handy. Before each swim, the club measures the temperature of the water against the air temperature. Because records have not been maintained, the club could not say what the coldest swim ever was. Thomas said the club recorded a 28-degree water temperature during one swim in 2014; and the Parks Department recorded a 22-degree water temperature at a swim at Orchard Beach in February 2014. Some club members even wait for a big storm to hit so they can take a snow day and head for a swim. Pictured are a group of polar bears who set out for a swim on Feb. 12, 2006, during the city's biggest snowstorm on record, with 26.9 inches of powder recorded.
Credit: Mo Riza via Flickr
A rabbi formed a splinter group after being kicked out of the club
Rabbi Abraham Abraham was a colorful Coney Island character, known for his wily white hair, curly mustache and bushy beard, as well as his white tank tops and outlandish jewelry.
More importantly, he was also a Polar Bear.
The New York Times reported he had once built an ice cube igloo near the Boardwalk "and sat in it for 110 hours." He was flamboyant, which made him popular with the media.
After a dispute with the club, In 1992, former Polar Bear President Al Mottola kicked him out.
The rabbi then formed the Arctic Ice Bears and, later, the Ice-Breakers Winter Ocean Swimmers of Brighton Beach (at some point they also swam at Coney Island Beach). "We're hard-core," said a member of the Ice-Breakers in a boast to the Times in 2011, the year the rabbi died. The club claimed many of its members were 70 years of age or older.
Last year, the loose group of Ice-Breakers celebrated the New Year with their own icy plunge at Brighton Beach.
Credit: Thomas McGann archives
Members say there's an unofficial 'spiritual leader'
Tom McGann is one of the veteran members of the Polar Bears, having joined the group in 1988. A former Wall Street warrior, he left to become a substance abuse counselor. Now some members consider him an unofficial "spiritual leader" for the group and its close-knit members. (However, the group emphasizes it is all-inclusive and has no religious affiliation.) "I try to bring a bit of calmness when people need it," he said. Occasionally, he counsels fellow Polar Bears when a loved one passes away and has also helped lead services on the beach for people who have died. "If you talk to anybody in the club, other than their family members, this is what they love more than anything in the world."
Credit: Bruce Handy
Polar Bear Club members say they get fewer colds each year
Handy, like many Polar Bears, claims winter bathing is a boon to his health.
"I haven't been sick in six years. I don't get these colds," said Handy, who has been a member for three years. "I think it has to do with when you go into the water your body produces some kind of hormones when your body goes into shock. ... It's sort of like training a body to fight off diseases."
But researchers aren't so sure the claims stand up to science.
Thomas Nuckton, a doctor and physician from San Francisco, California, and a member of the Dolphin Club established in 1877, studied 110 cold-water swimmers in 2011. "I am skeptical about cold water improving the immune system," he said. "I am skeptical of many of these so-called benefits of swimming in cold water. I am not skeptical about the benefits of exercise, fresh air, camaraderie and a beautiful sunset during a cold swim."
Research into the touted benefits of swimming in cold water is limited because of limited funds, he said.
Credit: Robert Galletta personal collection
The club first allowed women to join in 1964
Martha Grondski, a native of Sweden, claimed she fought for 40 years to break the gender barrier of the clubs before she was finally admitted in 1964. Over the years, women had attempted to join, but it wasn't until then-president Joe Murphy chose to break the gender barrier and let women in. Grondski, aged 80 and still swimming with the bears in 1981, told Newsday at the time that Murphy made the decision after leading a sick woman into the water. "After that day, he told the members he thought the club would be better if it were open to women, and that he didn't know if he could accept the presidency if it remained closed," said Grondski, pictured, circa 1968, kneeling at left.
Credit: Getty Images / Astrid Riecken
Through its New Year's swim, the club has raised more than $400,000 for charity
The Polar Bears begins planning its most famous event -- the New Year's Swim, which has drawn more than 1,000 people in recent years -- after Labor Day in September. It's a well-oiled machine that requires bears to volunteer their time fulfilling various roles, from policing the jetties that can become dangerous in the icy weather to making sure people get their certificates that show they successfully completed their frosty submersion. Because of the size of the event, the NYPD, FDNY and paramedics are on hand in case anything goes awry. Participants are asked to register and give a minimum $20 donation, which goes to charity. In 2015, the swim raised $70,000 for Camp Sunshine, a year-round recreational program for children with life-threatening illnesses.