One wintry Sunday, Dennis Thomas was hanging out in Coney Island when he observed something weirder than usual. A bunch of old men, stripped down to swim trunks, ran into the water and started swimming.
"I just thought, 'Well that's pretty crazy. I want to do that,'" the 64-year-old marketer from Brooklyn, told TODAY.
The following Sunday, he joined them, thinking he'd do it once, feel proud of his accomplishment and be done with it.
Yet, when he hit the water he fell in love.
"It's an experience that is so different from what we do in our day-to-day life," he told TODAY. "It becomes this very intense moment of just you being there and that's something fascinating."
It is exhilarating.
Since that first dip, 35 years ago, Thomas, the president of the Coney Island Polar Bear Club, has been swimming in the Atlantic ocean almost every Sunday from November to April. He's seen the club grow from a dozen "old weird guys" to about 135 members. Each week anywhere from 80 to 100 people come to Coney Island where most spend about 10 minutes in the icy water.
"A lot of people just go and splash around throw balls back and forth tread water, hang out and talk and laugh," Thomas said.
When the swimmer all get in the water, they take a moment to hold hands in a circle.
"We do have our rituals," he said. "There is something to simply bonding around the little rituals."
Recently the "New Yorker" published a story about the growing trend of cold water swimming in England. While Thomas knows of a few U.S. swimming clubs — in Boston and Chicago— like the Coney Island group, most Americans encounter cold water swimming once a year for polar bear plunges.
It was 16 degrees Fahrenheit as Brian Carothers stood on the banks of the Monongahela River in Pittsburgh waiting for his first polar bear plunge. Veterans of the icy dip told him what to expect — everything from brief loss of vision to paralysis.
“You do have that moment of ‘What the hell did I decide to do,’” Carothers, 40, a real estate agent in Pittsburgh, told TODAY.
Yet, when the time came he jumped.
"It is absolutely freezing and it is exhilarating” he said.
Carothers make his first plunge five years ago after a friend talked about how great it was. Despite his brief regret, he has enjoyed the three he’s participated in since.
“You do something that's kind of wild, kind of crazy and you accomplish something in the first three hours of being awake in the new year — for me, that's pretty awesome,” he said.
Carothers feels like the plunge helps him start the year off properly.
“When anything goes bad in the year that I don't do it, I think back to ‘Why didn't I jump in the river,’” he said.
Ian Tyson, a motivational speaker in St. Thomas, Ontario, Canada, started taking frigid showers after he heard of their benefits. At first, he could only stand them for a few seconds. Now, he showers for several minutes in chilly water and finds that he’ll leap into a cold pond or lake in early spring for a brisk swim. Jumping into an almost frozen Lake Erie on New Year’s Day 2019 for his first plunge was a natural next step.
“We splashed around in there for a while. It was ridiculously cold but it was invigorating and just really woke me up,” Tyson, 49, told TODAY. "I felt great."
Ease in to avoid cold water shock
Dr. Jonathan Landis, chief of emergency medicine at UPMC Passavant in Pittsburgh, isn’t surprised that people enjoy icy dips.
“There is probably a certain amount of endorphins and dopamine released when you jump in the water or when you are doing any other exciting, thrilling thing,” he told TODAY. “That is why they keep going back.”
He also suspects people enjoy the physical challenge of it and many experience a real sense of accomplishment after. While people who have heart problems might want to skip cold water swimming, Landis think swims of about 10 to 15 minutes are safe for many people. He recommends, though, that people ease into the water to avoid cold water shock. Cold water shock can take your breath away and create conditions that can lead to heart attack or accidental drowning.
“Walking in slowly and not shocking the body,” he said, “so that initial effect will not be as severe.”
For most people, a dive into cold water will cause “a surge of epinephrine,” also known as adrenaline, and “physiological aspects are going to be similar to exercise.” The water triggers a flight or fight reaction, causing that invigorating feeling.
Since high school, Sarah Hough has been enjoying saunas and cold water dips at Russian banyas. Exposing her body to warm and cold relaxes her.
“You get the best night of sleep after,” the 22-year-old musical theater major at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia told TODAY. “You have an adrenaline rush."
New Year’s Day 2020 she participated in her second polar bear plunge with her mother at Asbury Park in New Jersey. Diving into the 40-degree Atlantic Ocean helped her in a way she never anticipated.
“I was going through a little bit of an existential crisis. I had been worried about so many things,” she said. “I got in the car afterwards, beaming, and remember thinking, ‘All of these things are going to be fine.’”