By: Lauren Keating
The ocean inhales and drags its liquid contents backward as its waves jump high and then crash to the shore with the ocean’s exhale. There is something about the ocean that is spiritual, but perhaps it is just the spirit of Coney Island.
The freshness of life fills the air, as laughter from the members of the Coney Island Polar Bear Club is blown out to sea. While most New Yorkers stay bundled up, beating the cold, the members of the Coney Island Polar Bear Club bare all, taking a weekly Sunday swim from November to April every year.
Coney Island, the historic Brooklyn neighborhood, with its fantastical and nostalgic feel, is home to many annual festivals and events. One ritual, the weekly Polar Bear swim, which has been around for over one-hundred years, is no exception.
Plunging into New York’s bone-chilling waters during the winter appears to heal the bones of the members of Coney Island’s Polar Bear Club. Not only do the members partake of the experience in a ritualistic way, but they are also driven by the health benefits they receive from the cold swim.
Although winterswimming 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 climatic 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.”
Dr. Fred Notarnicola, who specializes in internal medicine, commented of 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 thirties, joined the club in mid-January of 2009. After suffering from health complications for years, this younger-generation Bear says that 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 sixteen, the drugs became unsuccessful at providing her with a seizure-free life.
“I had a Vagus Nerve Stimulator 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 Year’s 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 soar off into the horizon, their cawing is 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 108-year-old club had about 205 members in 2011, as 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 all trades people, lawyers, teachers, hipsters, vegans, kids covered with tattoos, a really wide cross-section of New York, retired people and kids in their 20s,” Thomas commented.
Even the media’s perception of the club has changed. “We used to appear on the local news for, say, 10 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 gastro bypass surgery in January of 2011. Her body was left tender, as medication didn’t 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 your abdominal muscles to get to your stomach. It’s 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 allow 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 added.
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.”
As the Coney Island Bears swim in arctic New York waters, in Beijing, China, the trend of winter swimming has also been on a rise. What seems like another world away, in fact exactly 6,847 miles east of New York, David Li De and other Chinese residents have been taking their own polar plunges in the natural rivers and lakes.
Going for a dip in the freezing waters in Beijing is a year-round activity, as this form of aerobic exercise is popular. Li De is among those who wish to push the winter swimming movement. His goals include creating better conditions and more opportunities for winterswimming in Beijing.
Li De began testing the icy waters in 1997 after being diagnosed with HIV. As far as he knows, he has been the only HIV patient in all of Beijing, and possible all of China, who has no complications or any further developments of his illness.
In May 1997, Li De, a seemingly healthy man, decided to donate blood. He admitted that he wasn’t aware of the status of his health prior to donating, but he was not feeling sick nor did he have any complications that would have made him cautious or nervous. He was then told that he was, in fact, HIV positive, news that blew him out of the water. “I was very shocked and I couldn’t believe it. After nearly three-months or so, I slowly became adjusted and accepted reality,” Li De stated.
He met Dr. Ren Lie Ping who claimed winter swimming could cure Li De’s illness, believing that this sport is a good way to enhance the immune system. Like Caserta, Li De was also advised and encouraged to keep swimming in the bone-chilling waters.
Dr. Ping claims that swimming in the cold water is common amongst Chinese folk, but the key is that there is a shortage of research funds. Li De aspires to educate people about how his condition has remained in remission. “I would like to participate in the World Winter Swimming Association Competition held every two years and let the world know that I had HIV, and through winter swimming, I achieved positive results.”
“I never lost faith while conquering HIV. Every day we swam in the cold water and cold wind outside. I could not persevere without faith. So now my body is in very good condition with no symptoms. So I suggest all the people join this sport, especially HIVers,” Li De stated. “Winter swimming is a kind of sport that is very powerful for physical and mental health.”
Being a firm believer in healthy lifestyles and natural healing, Benarr Macfadden, 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 is reported to have given birth to. 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 tiptoed 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 them home. If one believes the body is a temple, then 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 from five to seven minutes this 31-year member claimed that after his first swim his body had begun 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 also 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 have decreased. They claim that the cold swim releases the body from all pains, as in the water’s cold temperature the swimmer’s 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, 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 in 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 NY 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 a 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,” Thomas reported.
There may be something spectacular about the essence of Coney Island, and the Bears are no different. As the sounds of the waves crashing to the shore continue to fill the sounds on the Coney Island beach, the healthy hearts of the Coney Island Polar Bear Club continue to beat on as well.