Coney Island's Human Polar Bear

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Lucas Jackson / Reuters

The Coney Island Polar Bear Club's New Year's swim participants react as they jump into the Atlantic Ocean in last year's event

Since 1903, the Coney Island Polar Bear Club has staged a New Year's Day plunge into the icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean. This year, nearly 700 men, women and children are expected to enjoy a chilly dip with as many as 3,000 less courageous souls watching from the shore. (The club's more dedicated members meet each Sunday during the winter to enjoy a cold swim.) TIME spoke with the club's president, Dennis Thomas, about how the group got its start, the psychology behind cold-water swimming and why 65° weather in January sucks.

First, let me ask the obvious question: Why in the hell would someone want to jump into the ocean during winter?

[Laughs.] Well, it's been a long-standing New York tradition, for one thing. It's a celebration of the new year; it's a way to celebrate Coney Island; it's a way of breaking away from the past year. This is an activity that's so different and so distinct from what we normally do in our everyday lives that it's a very cathartic and cleansing experience. We all have stress, we know that — job, relationships, pressures; everyone's got that. And I guarantee you that once you're in that water, all that stuff disappears. You cannot think or worry about anything.

How would you describe the people who choose to do this?

You have to love the water. I think everyone finds something for themselves there. We're all very different people, from very different backgrounds — we have a couple lawyers who do it, a former police detective, I'm a graphic designer — it really runs this whole gamut of people. We're going to have some people from Sweden, I believe, out there tomorrow who are winter competitive swimmers, and we were contacted by the Chinese Winter Swimming Association, so we may do a Chinese New Year's event with them.

Do you have a pregame event of sorts?

We have our own ritual that has evolved over the years. It usually starts with blowing a conch-shell horn to rouse all the members. We walk down the beach, form a larger circle, do some jumping jacks to get the blood flowing. And one of our members always has a chant — a different chant each week that we always do our jumping jacks to. Then we go into the water and form a larger circle there — people are welcome to scream — and then it's a kind of open swim after that. For the past few years, the New York Aquarium has let us use their Education Hall as a clubhouse where we can change and have some tea afterward. Their support has been great for us, because, well, it's cold out there.

What do you tell first-timers, apart from remembering to bring shoes?

I always tell them, this is not a competitive event. It's not about staying in longest or suffering the most. We don't want that. We do it for fun. And if it's not fun, then get the hell out and find something you enjoy. [Laughs.] You know, people in the water are having a good time. They come out with smiles.

Tell me about the club's founder, Bernarr McFadden, and his belief that this activity improved stamina, immunity and even virility.

He was ahead of his time as a supporter of health food, exercise and physical culture. He wrote lots of books on health and eventually became a publisher. Initially, there used to be 12 or 20 winter-bathing groups on Coney Island. It used to be a big activity in the early 1900s, but we're the oldest surviving group. For years, our mothers told us that if you get your feet wet during the winter you're going to catch pneumonia and die. And we simply find that is not the case.

In the club's 100-year history, have any swims ever been canceled?

To my knowledge, we've never canceled one for bad weather. Last Sunday, it was 65° if you recall; that's almost reason enough to cancel. But we enjoy it all the time, any time. Sometimes you just have to take the good with the bad and put up with some lousy 65° weather. [Laughs.]

How did you first get involved in this?

I was out at Coney Island years ago, walking on the boardwalk, and I saw these old guys out there, and they were in bathing suits and lifting rocks. And then they went into the water, and I thought, That's really insane — I wanna do that! And I called them up, and they invited me down, and I've been doing it every Sunday during the winter for the past 25 years. Ten years ago, there'd be about eight of us showing up regularly. So about five years ago we reorganized the club and made it more accessible to people instead of being this almost secret group that met on the beach.

This tradition is practiced all over the world. What are some of the more extreme examples you've heard about?

Winter swimming has been popular in Scandinavia and Russia for years, but the most intense thing I've heard is this guy in Antarctica who jumped into a hole in the ice. I can't believe that. Hats off to him. We also got an e-mail two years ago from some of our troops in Iraq who did a New Year's Day plunge in Saddam's pool. I think that's pretty great.

How do you think the setting and atmosphere of Coney Island has influenced the club?

I think all of us have a special love for Coney Island. For me, it's just kind of been a center of weirdness. [Laughs.] Few places can match that kind of atmosphere. We love the cold water, but Coney Island is really very much a special place for all of us. I know there are development plans going on — they've been going on for years now, and it's changing even as we speak — so I feel sad about that; it won't be the same. Whatever changes do take place out there, as long as there's still the beach and the water, we're going to remain there no matter what. We are the longest living landmark. That's our home.