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Coney Island polar bears—not just New Year’s

Revelers bring in the new year with a frigid Coney Island dip in the annual Polar Bear tradition. Eagle photos by Mario Belluomo

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

When TV news-watchers saw hundreds of brave bathers ringing in 2014 with a plunge into the icy ocean off Coney Island, many were unaware that the Coney Island Polar Bear Club sponsors cold-water swimming every Sunday morning throughout the winter season.

The club, president Dennis Thomas told the Eagle, has about 135 members, about 80 to 100 of whom are active. They range in age from their teens through their 70s. They meet at the nearby New York Aquarium, and their average time in the ice water is 10 minutes.

On New Year’s Day, members of the Polar Bears, as well as the smaller Ice Breakers Clubs, stripped down to their trunks or dressed in costumes on Wednesday for the annual New Year's Day splash.

For the past seven years, the annual event has benefited Camp Sunshine in Casco, Maine, a retreat for kids with life-threatening illnesses and their families.

On Wednesday, some people hit the surf dressed only in bikinis or briefs. A group of guys wore bow ties and top hats and had a tea party, and others waved giant American flags. Temperatures outside were in the low 30s. People screamed at the shock of the cold water.

Thomas, whose club has hosted the annual dip since 1903, said it was a perfect day for a swim.

"It was a glorious beach day," said Thomas, a 30-year member of the club. "New York City beaches are great even in the winter. We love being out in it."

He added that cold-water swimming is a big activity “all over Europe” and in China. 

Michael Haltman and his 17-year-old son, Cory Haltman, took the plunge to raise awareness for a bone marrow donation registry. His 23-year-old daughter, Samantha Haltman, is donating bone marrow to a patient struggling with blood cancer, and they wanted to show support.

The water was a shock — Haltman said he felt it was difficult to breathe.

"I wore a winter coat until it was time to go, but others were out there for an hour and a half only in bikinis," Haltman said. "Parts of my body are still re-emerging. The sun wasn't out. It was freezing. Water temperature wasn't much warmer."

Just east of Coney Island, at Brighton Beach, the Ice Breakers plunged into the Atlantic. The group, founded by the late Rabbi Abraham Abraham, has 14 members over the age of 70, including 90-year-old Michael Friedman. The Ice Breakers also raise awareness for environmental issues.

--Colleen Young of the Associated Press contributing.

January 2, 2014 - 3:00pm


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