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Immersive reporting: Journo takes ‘Polar Plunge’

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1/6
The goggles, they do nothing: Many wore costumes celebrating the new year, such as these 2017 specs, which probably did not keep the salt water out of swimmers’ eyes.
2/6
Resolute: Thousands braved the chilly waters on New Year’s Day.
3/6
Huh?: Others wore more obscure get-ups.
4/6
Fire and ice: The presidential election influenced this year’s costumes, which included a jump-suit wearing Hillary Clinton and an overly tanned Donald Trump.
5/6
Hero: Others showed their patriotism with less overtly political displays.
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Season veterans: Members of the Polar Bears Club who hit the water every Sunday during the cold months were in no hurry to get out.

Call it my big splash!

I was among the horde of some 2,500 Brooklynites who charged into the frigid Atlantic Ocean for the more-than 100-year-old Brooklyn tradition of the Coney Island Polar Bear Club’s New Year’s Day plunge.

I had heard horror stories from fellow polar bears of years where the mercury dipped well below freezing, but the day’s unseasonably balmy high of 53 degrees quelled my fears of contracting hypothermia.

The Boardwalk was bustling with activity and a contagious excitement hours before the plunge.

Swimmers worked up their nerves with flutes of booze at the Place to Beach, turned swaths of the Boardwalk into a impromptu dance floors as disco hits pulsed over the speakers, and costumed revelers packed the People’s Playground — King Neptune and Baby New Year were there, and Elvis Presley even rose from the dead to partake in the festivities (or maybe it was just a killer look-alike). I suddenly felt under-dressed in my 1920s-esque swimwear and old sneakers.

It was a far cry from what the scene must have been when it was started in 1903.

Founder and fitness freak Bernand Macfadden believed that mid-winter bathing strengthens one’s constitution, according to club president Dennis Thomas.

Macfadden was an early advocate of physical fitness and natural foods and was largely dismissed as a charlatan during his time, but his polar plunges have managed to live on for more than a century — and entice nutty Brooklynites like myself into the icy waters for a vitality-boosting dip.

As the 1 pm kick-off approached, organizers corralled us into the beach’s makeshift runway. Polar Bear Club pros sectioned us off into waves so we wouldn’t pummel each other to death in a chaotic free-for-all to the shore. Swimmers puffed their chests and mustered up as much courage as they could with battle chants of “USA” and “Polar Plunge.”

My group broke out into the sweet, nostalgic tune of “Auld Lang Syne” as we watched the wave before us descend into the briny deep.

And then the long-awaited moment came.

I have to imagine few things bond Brooklynites like charging full-speed into 39-degree water, and while I may not have developed lasting friendships, a brief and intense bond with the Zebra-suit-clad man and the lobster-hat-wearing woman beside me formed as we clasped hands and barreled into the Atlantic.

I expected a slap of icy water to make me instantly regret my decision, but the chill was a welcome refreshment as I submerged myself into the sea. That refreshment was short-lived, however, and it wasn’t long before my instincts were screaming for me to get the hell out of there.

And as I emerged, I triumphantly waded out and into another sea — of photographers — before burrowing into towels that my less-daring friends had ready and waiting.

My pals chickened out this go-round, but I think my ear-to-ear grin has them considering partaking in next year’s plunge.

Reach reporter Caroline Spivack at cspivack@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260–2523. Follow her on Twitter @carolinespivack.
Updated 8:15 pm, January 4, 2017
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