To ring in the new year, take a dive into the stories of the Coney Island Polar Bear club. We hear from voices from across New York City—a cop speaking openly about his wife's drug addiction, Russian immigrants looking for tradition, and a mother mourning her daughter's death—who all have their own reasons for jumping into the freezing ocean every Sunday.

Want to read more about the topics brought up in this episode? Check out the following links:


Episode Transcript

People wading into the water at Coney Island beach in 1923.
(Edgar E. Rutter photograph collection, Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection)

Brynna Tucker I think today is 49 degrees so we’re now under 50. We put the temperature of the air and the water on the door every week so we can see. Out here our coldest, I think we’ve gotten down to about 33, maybe we got below freezing once. Water freezes at a lower temperature when it’s salt water so… yeah, I’ve swum in snow storms with three feet of snow on the ground out here which is great, out here in Coney Island.

Adwoa Adusei This is Brynna Tucker, she's the senior manager of innovation at Brooklyn Public Library, and on a cold Sunday afternoon in November, she took us to a packed building at the New York aquarium. Thirty to forty people were gathered, changing into their swim suits and catching up with friends they haven’t seen all week.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras It was the weekly meeting of the Coney Island Polar Bear Club. You might know the Polar Bear Club from the annual New Year’s Day Plunge, which is happening today. Last year, about 3,800 people ran into the freezing water, watched by about 30,000 spectators. 

Adwoa Adusei I feel like I would just be one of the spectotors... But the club isn’t only a new year’s thing. It operates ever Sunday from November to April … and, we were curious. What compels these people, from all across the city and even some from out of state, to travel to Coney Island every week and dip their bodies in the freezing ocean? 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Definitely something I'm not brave enough to do. So, as people were getting ready to head out onto the winter beach, we asked them. And, because it’s the new year today, and a new decade, in fact, we wanted to let you dive into their stories with us.

[MUSIC]

Dennis Thomas Hi, I’m Dennis Thomas. I’m president of the Coney Island Polar Bear Club. The group was founded in 1903 by Bernarr MacFadden. He changed his name from Bernard to Bernarr because it sounded more masculine … ber-NARR. He was a real early supporter of healthy lifestyle, physical culture. I believe he was vegetarian, and built a bunch of health camps around the country. And so, the club has been here pretty much ever since, as far as we can tell. We average 80, 90 each week. When I first started it was maybe eighteen, and for some reason, it’s grown. A lot. We’re turning people away because we can’t accommodate everyone in the space we use here at the aquarium. I never thought that would happen. That’s really strange.

Albert Wetzler, member of the Coney Island Polar Bear Club in 1949, swims
to celebrate the first day of winter, watched by skater Maureen Millerick.
(Brooklyn Daily Eagle photographs, Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection)

Elliot Reed My name is Elliot Reed. I loved swimming ever since I was a kid, going to the ocean. I grew up in Odessa, Ukraine and my mother always took us to the Black Sea. Here, once I was introduced to this incredible community, I made a commitment and I actually swim more during the winter months, from November to April, as we do every Sunday, than during the summer. Being a straight-edge vegan myself, it’s very difficult in a world that accepts animal exploitation as the norm. Coming here, going in the water, it does help me straighten my mental fortitude and stay convicted and continue my activism.

Janete Scobie I had a deathly fear of the open water. Yes, so this is a journey for me, this is part of my journey to get used to the water and everything like that. I come all the way from Manhattan, from the Upper West Side because it’s so worth it. [Laughs] Growing up, I came to this country when I was three years old, and I never came out here to swim. And I tell everyone now that people should go to the beach and swim more in the waters. I never thought of New York as being a beach, swimming kind of area, but it is.

Noum Barash Okay, my name is Noum Barash. I am in United States almost thirty years. Since I came in the United States, I started working and one lady told me, “Oh, there is a club over here!” Because I told her that I was swimming in the winter in Russia. She say, “They have the same over here.” I say, “Oh, give me the information!” And I love over here. I love people that coming here, the environment and … beautiful, you know? And this is my friend. Also he used to swim back in Russia or Moldova. Now he and his wife swimming here. And, ask him, he enjoying too. 

Virginia Marshall What’s it like to swim in Moldova or Russia, is it different? 

Alex [Spekaing in Russian.]  

Noum Barash He said the environment over here much better, more people. Over there, maybe five, six people. Every year different nature. He enjoying even coming here, like I said.

Members of the Coney Island Polar Bear Club on the snowy beach in 1977.
(Irving I. Herzberg photograph collection, Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection

Michael Balioni This is like being on a subway from the Bronx to Brooklyn. You get a little bit of everything, all different races, ethnicities, religion, political background, dietary restrictions, we’re all different. This is such a New York thing. My name is Michael Balioni and I am a Coney Island Polar Bear. This is going to be my second year. Okay, so I was separated from my wife because she had an addiction to opioid pain killers, and I was living with my uncle in Staten Island. And she had slowly started to become sober. And the people I was living with, I wasn’t honest with them. So I get thrown out of where I’m living on my very first swim, and there was like this ripple effect—that I didn’t have a family at that point when I got thrown out, so the Polar Bears became like a family. What’s funny is I’m a police officer in this precinct. What I can tell you is this: me being a police officer, me speaking openly about my wife’s recovery, and me being a Polar Bear has kind of like put me on this path that … I mean, do you know any other cop that talks about their wife’s drug addiction? This is the most authentic community policing I could ever think of. Because I’m a cop who will be in his underwear and then very matter-of-factly in a couple of hours be in a uniform. So now my wife has close to three years of sobriety from opioids, and the Polar Bears are still my family. And my real family, like, they’re starting to come around. I love these people, I really do. I love these people. They didn't see the destruction of active drug addiction. They just see the joys of recovery. This is my recovery.

Announcer The rain has let up! Wouldn’t want you all to get wet.

Adwoa Adusei At exactly 1 pm, with everyone was dressed in their bathing suits and robes, the group left the changing room and headed out on to the freezing beach. Some people had on flip flops, some didn’t have any shoes on at all. The rain had stopped, but it was still windy, grey and cold. It was the kind of weather you wouldn’t want to get caught in without any gloves let alone without any pants…

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Elliot, the straight edge vegan we heard from earlier, was playing “Eye of the Tiger” as one woman clad only in a bathing suit and a swim cap, stepped quickly over the cold sand.

Jane Martin-Levaud What brings me here? Excitement and the all body tingle! My name is Jane Martin-Levaud. I came here for the first time not for the New Year’s Day Plunge but on Sunday January 5, 2014. It was the one year anniversary of my daughter’s passing. She was killed in a violent car crash the prior year. And I knew that she had done the plunge, so I came to check it out in her spirit, and I’m not even sure if she did it here, but I knew she had done it and it’s like taking her with me. Absolutely. Well, being in the water makes me feel connected to the entire planet, so everyone who has ever existed, exists now, or will exist in the future I feel connected to. 

Polar Bears take in the freezing water on a chilly day in November 2019, as 
producer Virginia Marshall stands and records the sound.
(Ann Finkel, Brooklyn Public Library)

Adwoa Adusei The Polar Bears ran into the water, most waded in up to their waists or necks and stood in a circle, holding hands. Some took a few laps. At one point, the group started a chant 

Polar Bears [Chanting] Rain, rain, go away! I wish we had snow today! Hey ho, let’s go! 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras After about ten minutes, the Bears start to come out of the water. They were all smiling, some were shivering, and everyone was dripping water onto the sand.    

Jennifer Stotts This is the best part, in my opinion. Because all my muscles relax when I’m in there, and so I come out and the tension in my neck is gone and that sort of thing. So I just feel more relaxed.

Brynna Tucker As soon as I go under to my neck and I catch my breath, that’s the meditative part of it. Because it knocks the wind out of you, when you get in there. You hear us like doing all these grunts and polar bear noises … that’s not because we like the noise. It’s because we’re trying to catch our breath. When you’re finally calm and you can be present in the moment, that’s the best part.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras I don't know, Adwoa, this is sort of tempting me to try the Polar Bear Plunge. What about you? 

Adwoa Adusei Um ... no. [Laughs] But I did really enjoy hearing how the Polar Bear Plunge has really changed people's lives. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras I know, I wasn't expecting it to get so meditative. That's beautiful. Well, from all of us here at BPL, we are wishing you calm in the new year, and a refreshing plunge in cold water, if that’s your style.

Adwoa Adusei As always, Borrowed is hosted by me, Adwoa Adusei, and Krissa Corbett Cavouras. It is produced and written by Virginia Marshall with help from Fritzi Bodenheimer, Jennifer Proffitt, Meryl Friedman and Robin Lester Kenton. Our music composer is Billy Libby.  

Krissa Corbett Cavouras And, we've got historic photos of the Coney Island Polar Bear Club in its early days in our Brooklyn Collection archive. So, we’ve put a link to some of those in our show notes at bklynlibrary [dot] org [slash] podcasts. So, in the new year, you should try something new. Why not come into our libraries, take a book off a shelf and start planning an adventure.

Adwoa Adusei Borrowed has some exciting things coming up in in 2020! We’ll be at the Brooklyn Podcast Festival on Sunday, January 26 at Union Hall talking about our favorite books of 2019. The event is free. Check out our website for information on how to reserve your spot. We hope to see you there!

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Until next time, stay cool, polar bears.

close navigation