It was a day like any other beach day.
Mortal combat for parking spaces along Surf Avenue. People carrying their gear to the boardwalk. Music in the air and the scent of hot dogs and french fries. Sunshine and balmy temperature.
You had to remind yourself that it was January, but then, Coney Island is famous for making the unusual mainstream. By the time I reached the sand beside the new Luna Park, in the shadow of the ancient Wonder Wheel, there were thousands of people. Once upon a time a handful of meshugganehs — mostly elderly and/or Russian — took an annual dip on New Year’s Day, calling themselves the Polar Bears and taking advantage of the slow news day to get on TV.
Now, the event has gone mainstream, like the Nathan’s Hot Dog contest, and Sunday’s unseasonably warm 50s climate made it an even more tempting draw. Only about half those on the beach were there to swim, the others to cheer the lunatics on or take their pictures for them or for the media.
“This will be great for my hangover,” one guy said as he jogged into the surf, and all around there were numerous references to anatomical changes related to cold water.
I can’t recall exactly when the idea of taking part in this ritual began to appeal to me — probably tied to the press releases and after-photos I receive every year — but somewhere around mid-2010 my friend Alan Skorsky and I began talking about taking the plunge, until one of us looked at the calendar to find that New Year’s Day 2011 was a Saturday.
This year the conversation picked up much closer to deadline and the forecast made it irresistible. I would later hear on the radio that the real Polar Bears were upset at the good weather, the way some people would be crestfalllen about rain on a game day, because they prefer the temperature to be about 30 degrees lower. (Reality check: While warmer air when you get out of the water is nice, the water temperature doesn’t change. It’s still in the 30s.)
Things didn’t get off to a great start. Alan and I had to travel there separately, find two parking spots and somehow meet up in the crowd, needle-in-haystack style. And without cell phones, since they’ve yet to invent the waterproof type.
Alan managed to get there early enough to swim with a Jewish group of about six guys from the stereotype-defying Jewish Outdoors Club. There were at least 10 distinct groups of bathers, each with their own flag for a rallying point, but somehow I couldn’t locate this club, though I did spot a few yarmulkes in the crowd.
I was left to go solo, and with commitments in the afternoon, it would have to be a quick dunk. Most people I saw stayed in the water just long enough to take a picture, and many went in only waist-deep. I was determined to do a full immersion. So I ditched my Crocs and towel and various layers of outerwear and stared down the Atlantic Ocean. The waves were fairly calm, and so was I.
I’ve always been a water guy, probably a fish or dolphin in another life. I judge the quality of every summer by how many beach days I get in and the quality of every vacation by how wet I can get. On checking into a hotel, my first question is where’s the pool?
I got this.
There was no point hesitating. When my kids were little and used to tiptoe into a pool, I would give them the the advice that could well be applied to many aspects of life: “The only way to do it is to just do it.” If you’re going to eventually do something anyway, why torture yourself with apprehension? Just take the plunge.
I repeated that catchphrase to myself as I sprinted into the water until it reached above my knees and then plunged headfirst into a wave.
It’s hard to describe the sensation of shock to your entire body, especially since it only lasted a few seconds. When I stood up again I felt weak, like I had just been punched and had the wind knocked out of me. Within seconds my body started to adjust, but I didn’t push my luck, dunking one more time and splashing around a bit like a kid, but then sprinting back up into the sand, rather than luxuriate in the frosty waves like the hard-core, real Polar Bears.
The air might have been unseasonably warm but there was definitely a wind-chill factor as I threw my clothes on over a wet bathing suit and headed back to my minivan to turn the heat up to full blast.
But not before collecting my Certificate of Accomplishment from the official Polar Bear Club, emblazoned with the bold legend “I Did It.” I’m not really sure that level of encouragement for this crazy stunt is a good idea given the health risks involved, but hey. True Polar Bears insist it’s actually good for you, which defies everything I understand about medicine. But Russians do tend to live a really long time. Maybe it isn’t just all the yogurt.
So, I did my Ukrainian heritage proud, at least for a moment or two.
What else I accomplished that day — other than scoring a good (free) spot on Surf Avenue, earning a certificate (which I’m pretty sure was given to more than a few dry folks) and applying my own advice about just doing it — I’ll have another 12 months to ponder.
Or less. I just got a text from Alan that there’s a Super Bowl Splash at Long Beach on February 5th.