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3,500-plus 'polar bears' plunge into the water off Coney Island

More than twice as many people participated this year in warmer weather. And it all goes to a good cause: local charities.

What a difference a year and 40 degrees make.

Over 3,600 people stripped down to the bare essentials and dipped into the waters of Coney Island Beach for the annual polar bear plunge, according to organizers. The crowd was noticeably larger than the 1,200 swimmers who showed up last year, when the temperatures were in the teens and the water was barely above the freezing mark.

With a high of 53 degrees Tuesday, New Yorkers were more willing to brave the frigid water.

"I always thought that this was crazy, but here I am," said Liz Sweeting, 51, a first time Coney Island polar bear participant from Harlem. "It's a good way to start the new year."

The festivities began on the boardwalk, with music, games and colorful costumes, including some mermaids and mermen. Alexandra Silversmith, the executive director of the Alliance for Coney Island, which helps run the event along with the Coney Island Polar Bear Club, said the community takes pride in the plunge.

"This is our New Year's tradition," she said. "It's great because people couldn't go out last night because of the rain, so now they can enjoy the boardwalk."

For veteran polar bear swimmers, the event is therapeutic. Megan White, 48, of Jamaica, has gone into the water six times, and said winter plunges make her feel energized and confident.

"It reinforces a good message, it's mind over matter," she said.

Scott Chinn, 40, of Carrol Gardens, has survived the dip for three years in a row. He was excited to spend more time in the water this year than last year.

"I plan to go and put my full head underwater," he said. "Doing something crazy feels appropriate."

The annual swim raised over $54,000 for several Coney Island based organizations, including the Coney Island History Project and the New York Aquarium.

"That money goes to our scientists who are out in the water all year, studying marine life," said Jon Forrest Dohlin, the aquarium's director. 

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