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The New Year's Ritual of Plunging Into Frigid Waters Started with a Strongman at Coney Island


article-imageSwimmers run to the frigid water at the 2012 New Year's Day Coney Island Polar Bear Club Plunge (photograph by Kim/Flickr)

On a gray, windy New Year's Day years ago, after a romantically traumatic New Year's Eve, I stood barefoot and nearly naked in the snow at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, about to do something drastic, all because of the inventor of the penis pump.

Next to me stood a very large woman in a one-piece bathing suit and neoprene booties. She spread her arms, tilted her face toward the hazy disk of the sun, and said in a heavy Russian accent, "Too warm this year!" Then we plunged into the frigid water, led by members of the Coney Island Polar Bear Club and a hundred or so non-member participants like me. Later that day, I got a call from a friend who said he'd seen me on TV news, and the reporter said I seemed to be enjoying myself.

"What in the world were you doing out there?," he asked.

"Wiping the slate clean."

article-imageWell-dressed participants have a tea party in the water at the 2014 Coney Island New Year's Day swim (photograph by Allison Meier/Atlas Obscura)

article-imagePolar Bear Club banner at Coney Island (photograph by Kim/Flickr)

Starting the year with a screaming, slate-cleaning plunge into a cold body of water has become a tradition with winter bathing clubs worldwide. The oldest such club in the United States is the Coney Island Polar Bear Club. Its annual New Year's swim, once attended only by club members and a few dozen outsiders, now attracts thousands of registered (and often costumed) bathers and curious onlookers. Its purpose is no longer mere icy invigoration: last year's swim raised $65,000 for Camp Sunshine, a retreat for terminally ill children and their families. Check to see if there's a New Year's fundraising plunge in your area: if you follow the club's instructions it's great, safe fun.

The Coney Island Polar Bear Club was founded in 1903 by "physical culturist," showman, publishing magnate, sensationalist, and daredevil Bernarr Macfadden. (Née Bernard McFadden: he thought Bernarr sounded like a lion's roar, and Mac seemed to him more manly than Mc.)

article-imageBernarr Macfadden cabinet cards (via Houghton Library at Harvard University)

The supremely confident and singularly energetic Macfadden has been described as "a cross between Teddy Roosevelt and P.T. Barnum." On New Year's Day, 1903, Macfadden led about 50 hardy men and women to the beach at Coney Island for calisthenics followed by an invigorating swim. 90 years later, after my night of rom-traum, I happily participated in the tradition. I needed a cold bath.

Many early 20th century physical fitness promoters like Macfadden claimed that frequent cold baths were necessary for vitality. Modern research has not borne out that claim. (Given his penchant for icy dips, it's no surprise that Macfadden was the inventor of the penis pump for male enhancement, which he called the Peniscope). However, it seems reasonable that leaving the house on a short winter day, joining like-minded people for exercise in the fresh air, followed by a brief, bracing, laughter-filled swim, might be healthier than semi-hibernation with Netflix and a pint of ice cream.

Today's Coney Island Polar Bear Club makes no direct health claims.

"It's fun!" says club president Dennis Thomas, whom I met recently.

"I did it three times, and that was enough!" Thomas' girlfriend laughed.

"It's not for everyone," Thomas smiled. He's taken the plunge about 700 times in the past 30 years (member swims happen every Sunday, in every weather, November-April). There may be a bit of extremist blood in the Thomas family: Dennis' twin brother Donald is a four-time space shuttle astronaut.

I asked Thomas what he derives from the experience. "When you're in there, you don't think about other issues in your life. Everything is erased for a bit. Coming out of the water is like a rebirth, every week."

article-imageThe 2014 Coney Island Polar Bear Plunge on New Year's Day (photograph by Allison Meier/Atlas Obscura)

Support Camp Sunshine by joining the Coney Island Polar Bear Club this New Year's Day

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