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Big splash! Polar plunge draws record number of swimmers

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These polar bears are anything but endangered.

A record 2,600 souls braved the Atlantic Ocean’s icy embrace to raise money for sick children during the Polar Bear Club’s New Year’s Day plunge in Coney Island on Jan. 1. Organizers dared steel-nerved Brooklynites to take a mid-winter dip as a fund-raiser for Camp Sunshine, a Maine retreat for sick children and their families, and this year’s turnout and fund-raising totals shattered records like a two-ton bear on thin ice, an organizer said.

“We’re knocking on the door of $90,000, which will cover the expenses for 40 families to come on a week-long retreat to the camp,” said camp director Michael Katz. “It’s really a testament to the Polar Bear Club and everyone who came out to swim.”The Coney Island Polar Bear Club — which claims to be the oldest winter bathing club in the country — meets regularly for winter dips off Coney Island. It’s done so every year since strongman and health nut Bernarr Macfadden founded the club in 1903.

An eclectic crowd gathered for the annual tradition. Some dressed up as polar bears and penguins, and others waved American flags. There were folks in costume as elusive children’s book star Waldo, video-game mainstay Mario, and dozens in Santa Clauses outfits. The plunge started with a conch shell call from the club’s leader — Chief Polar Bear — who plodded into the sea along with a makeshift marching band.

Camp Sunshine raises money through a voluntary $20 registration fee and donations from sponsors. This year, Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park ran the Wonder Wheel on New Year’s Day and donated half the proceeds to the camp, Katz said.

The money pays for a full program of activities and services for sick kids and their families at Camp Sunshine, including boating and outdoor sports. It gives parents a place to meet others who are also struggling with the realities of caring for a sick child. They also offer bereavement services for parents who have lost children, Katz said.

Reach reporter Dennis Lynch at (718) 260–2508 or e-mail him at dlynch@cnglocal.com.
Updated 10:17 pm, July 9, 2018
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