During the summer, Coney Island remains one of the city’s most popular destinations for city dwellers seeking relief from the heat. And for several years now, city planners and developers have been aiming to rebrand the place as a year-round destination. But the diehards who belong to the Coney Island Polar Bear Club operate by a different calendar, taking a weekly Sunday swim from November to April every year.
Although winter swimming can be hard for some to conquer, the rush one feels is powerful, making the old come together with the young, resulting in a feeling of being alive. “It’s sometimes hard to go into the cold water, particularly when the sun is not shining or when it’s windy, but I know that I will always feel great afterwards and that is the motivating force,” Queens resident Therese Caserta stated. As if the ocean was some sort of fountain of youth, this climactic feeling the members feel rejuvenates, refreshes, and revitalizes mind, body, and soul. “After a few minutes, this high rushes over me and I feel very happy and very tranquil and at peace.”
Plunging into New York’s bone-chilling waters during the winter appears to heal the bones of the members of the Polar Bear Club. Not only do the members partake in the experience in a ritualistic way, but they are also driven by the health benefits they receive from the cold swim.
Dr. Fred Notarnicola, who specializes in internal medicine, commented on this “high,” stating, “When you go into cold water, the brain releases endorphins which block pain receptors, so you do not feel the pain. You get a rush of adrenaline. This increases heart rate, blood pressure, and to some degree, boosts metabolism.”
Caserta, who is in her early 30s, joined the club in mid-January of 2009. After suffering from health complications for years, this younger generation bear says that the release of endorphins and adrenaline makes her “feel good” and improves her mood dramatically. This is important to her after suffering from epilepsy her entire life. After being treated with multiple drugs since the age of 16, the drugs became unsuccessful at providing her with a seizure-free life.
“I had a Vagus Nerve Stimulator (VNS) implanted in 2001 but it too, was unsuccessful and, in fact, made my seizures worse. All of 2005 was a blur of testing for me to see if I qualified for brain surgery. It was decided that I was an eligible surgical candidate and I went on to have the VNS removed in February of 2006, followed by a craniotomy in March, and a right temporal lobectomy in April of 2006. It was the defining year of my life,” Caserta stated.
She had wanted to be a polar bear since she was a young girl around age six and saw the New Years Day swim on television. After feeling healthy from a winter swim, it seemed joining the club was a perfect fit. Now a religious member of the ritual swim, Caserta stated, “Some people go to church. We go to the ocean.” As seagulls soared off into the horizon, their cawing was like the tolling of a bell as a procession of members began to anoint themselves with the ocean. Spirituality flourishes during these afternoons, as the waves continue to crash effortlessly as thoughts.
“The club roster is consistently growing. Most polar bears recruit people in their everyday lives and the media attention we get also draws people in. We completely believe in what we do as having health benefits and as a very ‘holy’ experience. We want everybody to share in this,” Caserta claimed.
The 109-year-old club had about 205 members in 2011, as the president of the club, Dennis Thomas, set out on a mission to make the club feel more at home. “The Coney Island Polar Bear Club is an interesting mix of people who may not socialize anywhere else. Our membership includes trades people, lawyers, teachers, hipsters, vegans, kids covered with tattoos, a really wide cross-section of New York, retired people and kids in their 20’s,” Thomas commented.
Even the media’s perception of the club has changed. “We used to appear on the local news for, say, ten seconds before the weather forecast with the anchors basically laughing and calling us crazy. The past few years the media has given us a different form of attention. I think it has to do not only with the ways the club has grown, but what I think they’re seeing is the enthusiasm of the members, the ‘second family’ feel, the diversity of the membership (we aren't a bunch of old fat guys on the beach anymore),” noted Thomas.
Caserta stressed that the polar bears are her family. “I look forward to being with them every Sunday and it helps boring New York City winters go by quickly. The ocean is therapy and makes everything better whether it's a physical ailment, or I'm feeling mentally blah,” the New York Aquarium worker added.
In addition to Caserta’s surgeries concerning her epilepsy, she also endured a gastric bypass surgery in January of 2011. Her body was left tender, as medication did not improve the severity of the pain. “The doctors did the surgery laproscopically and I had a total of six holes where they actually put the instruments right through my abdominal muscles to get to my stomach. It was painful and hard to move. The cold water actually helped numb the pain better than prescription painkillers.”
Surprisingly, her doctors encouraged her to keep on winter swimming. Dr. Notarnicola explained why. “If you have wounds and they are not healed yet, the cold has a protective effect of reducing the swelling, which allows the tissues to heal faster.”
“My surgeon did tell me it was okay to swim with the wounds because the cold water in January does not harbor bacteria the way warm water does, so the risk of infection is very low,” Caserta included.
Caserta’s medical struggles continued after having a car accident this past year. Her doctors were supportive of the cold water swimming because it was therapeutic for her injured back. “The cold reduces the inflammation and being submerged in water takes the weight and pressure off of the joints.”
Bernarr Macfadden, a firm believer in healthy lifestyles and natural healing, also known as the “Father of Physical Culture,” founded the Coney Island Polar Bear Club in 1903. “Weakness is a crime; don’t be a criminal,” is a slogan he reportedly created. The members of the Polar Bear Club are far from weak, although many members are still from an older generation, and many suffer from health complications.
Club member Luis Padilla showed no fear when the members proceeded to plunge.
As some members tip-toed near the receding shoreline, testing the water as if toes were thermometers, others, like Padilla, jumped right in as if the water had finally called him home. If one believes the body is a temple, this swim makes the body a mecca of enlightenment; it is becoming one with nature in its simplest form.
Padilla can often be found leading the bears to their warm-up exercise, where the members gather around a circle to get their body temperatures rising as they do some jumping jacks before diving in. An outsider can see this as representing their unity.
Padilla is a seasoned swimmer with the bears and he stated that only about seven of the old-timers he knew are left. After staying active in the water for five to seven minutes, this 31 year member claimed that after his first swim his body began to grow healthier. Padilla suffered for years with back pain and arthritis before being convinced by his brother Carlos to dive into the ritual. “That water is good for you,” stated Carlos, as he was advised to “jump around to keep warm.”
With his prominent Spanish accent, Padilla recalled, “That night I slept really well because I didn’t feel the pain.” His health complications began to subside.
After suffering from lung problems, Padilla was advised by doctors to stay active. He took a liking to winter swimming and decided to remain an active member. Not only Padilla, but dozens of members of the club stated that after suffering from joint pains, arthritis, and sore muscles, they found that the intensity of their symptoms had decreased. They claim that the cold swim releases the body from all pains, since in the water’s cool temperature the swimmers’ bodies become numb, easing the stress in the body. “It’s like medicine,” Padilla stated.
The medical opinion of Dr. Notarnicola differs from what some members believe. “If you have arthritis, the cold numbs the pain in that moment; however, afterwards, they can feel more pain,” the doctor asserted.
He said that muscle spasms will worsen later for those suffering from back, neck, or joint pains. He does not agree that the numbing effect the members feel during the swim is a positive thing for those suffering from this disease.
It is important that those with arthritis are advised about these and other risks. If not monitored properly, the swim can become dangerous, as members could also be at risk of drowning after feeling numb for too long. For safety precautions, the club hires lifeguards to survey in case of an emergency.
Dr. Notarnicola believes that winter swimming has at least one concrete medical benefit. Mother Nature may have offered humanity some biologic gift, as winter swimming increases white blood cells, which in turn help make the immune system stronger.
“If you are elderly and you are very healthy, you don’t have diabetes, you don’t have high blood pressure and you don’t have heart disease, the cold water could definitely help boost your immune system.”
Whether this medical advantage is some kind of freak of nature or not, this benefit is what allows the members to remain healthy and prevents them from catching the common cold after being exposed to cold temperatures for up to 15 minutes.
“The cold water helps boost your white blood cells. Anytime you get attacked by bacteria or viruses, your white blood cells produce antibodies. The antibodies attack either the bacteria or the virus and they kill both. It’s a mechanism of defense. The immune system is essential to the body,” stated Dr. Notarnicola.
Joining a brotherhood of bears for a polar plunge seems to heal the body one swim at a time, or at least it increases immunity, white blood cells, and gives the bear an endorphin high. “I joined the club because of doctor’s orders,” one polar bear shouted in the Education Hall of the New York Aquarium. But whether new members of a younger generation are joining the bears for health reasons, or to feel that contagious family unit feeling thanks to alpha bear, Thomas, membership is certainly on the rise.
“Part of my own attitude is that the Coney Island Polar Bear Club is part of the long history of Coney Island. We’re the oldest living landmark at Coney Island; we’ve been there longer than the parachute drop, the Wonder Wheel, and even Nathan’s. So being a part of the club is participating in the history of Coney Island and continuing it into the future,” observed Thomas.
As the masses flock to Coney Island for the next few months, the healthy hearts of the polar bears lay in hibernation, resting up for the icy dips of winter.
LAUREN KEATING is a writer based in Brooklyn.