How I Braved My First Polar Bear Plunge

January 2, 2014 Updated: January 3, 2014

NEW YORK—Only the foolhardy will brave the Atlantic Ocean on New Year’s Day to take part in the Coney Island Polar Bear Plunge. This year, I was one of them.

Rather than curling up in bed recovering from a night of partying, hundreds of venturesome souls dipped into near freezing temperatures at Coney Island in Brooklyn yesterday—proving that winter swimming is not just for the eccentric.

Onlookers wearing five layers of clothing, two scarves and a hat shook their heads in disbelief as they watched swimmers get ready for the plunge.

I clutched my bag that was overflowing with towels, and was starting to feel nervous. I stood in the registration line, fully dressed, and my hands were already numb.

A warmly dressed man saw me.

“Are you crazy?” he asked. I just smiled back, but inside I was anxious.

Another first-timer to the Coney Island New Year swim, Deborah, was waiting in the line.

“I’m going in to celebrate life,” she exclaimed.

She said she has been doing “crazy things” since she turned 50 years old. She walked 26 miles in Mexico last year and will be training for a marathon this year. Here positivity was inspiring.

Also in the line was Scott Michels, 25 who had done the swim three times before.

So how does it feel?

“Well, you don’t really feel much in the first three seconds,” he said.

“There’s very logical reasons not to do it, but I do it because I can.”

Then I got to the front of the line and the organizer gave me a green band and an “I did it” certificate and sticker, before I had even gone into the water.

Reluctant to go down to my swimsuit, I heard the announcement for the green bands and realized I had to go for it.

It’s best to run in, I thought. So I took the frigid bath.

I gasped for air, and I felt I was walking on blocks of ice rather than sand, other swimmers bopped up and down in an attempt to keep warm.

Despite the icy shudders, sea swimming does somehow have that feel-good factor. Everyone on Coney Island seemed to be having the time of their lives.

Callie Simpkins, 22, from Manhattan was beaming with positive vibes.

“I feel invincible!” she said.

Even though the group of friends she invited hadn’t turned up to join her for the swim, she was upbeat about getting out of her comfort zone.

“It’s good to start the year bold. It’s going to be a good year,” she said.

After the swim there was an option to chill with the cool crew on the coast. Lively music from the DJ spread through the swimmers.

The admirable thing about the Coney Island Polar Bear plunge is that many swimmers don’t do it just for the adrenalin high, they also do it to raise money for good causes. This year they are bringing in funds for Camp Sunshine, an organization that helps children and their families with life threatening diseases.

Regulars from the Long Beach Polar Bear Club, Tom Bazzini and Kevin McCarghy wore white dressing gowns.

McCarghy started swimming in the club to find something to do on Sundays and has since been hooked.

“We say to people, at least try it once,” he said.

This festive experience has got me thinking; perhaps I’ll take the plunge again on a quieter day—away from the cameras and the crowds.

Follow Jane on Twitter: @itsjanewriting
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