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Polar postmortem: Our editor relives his New Year’s Day plunge

They did it!: This newspaper’s Editor-in-Chief, Anthony Rotunno, right, and Arts Editor, Bill Roundy, had smiles frozen on their faces for hours after they completed the New Year’s Day Coney Island Polar Bear Plunge.
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Brr-ing it on, 2019!

That is what I repeated to myself while huddled amid a mass of half-naked people on Coney Island beach on Jan. 1, waiting for organizers of the annual New Year’s Day Coney Island Polar Bear Plunge to lift the plastic fencing separating us from the Atlantic Ocean.

Minutes before, my three friends and I joked about how refreshing the dip would be, while we soaked up the sun on the unseasonably balmy day, when temperatures crept toward the high 50s.

But the warmth of the giant star’s rays quickly subsided as I shed my fuzzy outer layers on the sand — and watched the first plungers sprint from the waters toward their towels, their teeth chattering and bodies writhing in the cold air.

Until that moment, I hadn’t much thought about actually taking the plunge — just the spectacle of making our way to the People’s Playground, semi-hungover after a long night ringing in the new year. And, of course, the many photo opportunities the excursion would present — including the chance to pose with my beloved Arts Editor Bill Roundy, who also planned for a wet start to the next 12 months.

My decision to do the dip — often described with such calming words as refreshing, restorative, and rejuvenating — seemed far less sound as I witnessed the sheer chaos that was the inaugural batch of 500 plungers’ scramble to warm up after they dove into the water at 1 pm.

But there was little time to question my choice as the clock ticked toward my group’s 1:10 pm plunge time. Besides, the only way out of the makeshift pen would be to fight my way through the rows of people waiting to follow us into the ocean.

Another massive crowd stood alongside us, shouting well wishes that grew even louder as the last seconds ticked down. Then the organizers lifted the plastic fencing in front of us, and our group of started to slowly move toward the water as one, like an amoeba.

All of a sudden, the noise stopped — even as I rushed past the marching band that lined our path to the shoreline. My sense of sound seemed to go dormant as my body braced for the sensation of stepping into the icy water — which may not technically have been below freezing, but sure felt like it.

I watched as bodies silently splashed past me, as heads popped up from and dropped below the surface around me, as mouths opened wide but no sounds came out. The water washed over me in small waves, knocking the wind out of me as it broke higher and higher on my bare chest.

To my right I saw my friend Liz, who had been clutching my arm since we stood on the beach and still hadn’t let go, even though I could no longer feel her grasp. She gestured to the surface, reminding me we agreed to dunk our heads together. She then collapsed into the water, bringing me down with her.

I barely closed my eyes and plugged my nose before my body fell into the cold abyss.

As quickly as we went under, we popped up. And then we bolted to the shore.

My senses returned with each step I took away from the water. The cacophony of cheers blared in my ears as I ran past the remaining souls who had yet to submerge, and I started to notice all those brave Brooklynites who jumped in before me. Many of their expressions had melted from shock to smiles, and I basked in the warmth of that cheer until I made it to the towel waiting for me by the Boardwalk.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call the plunge “fun,” and I’m definitely in no rush to jump in again next year. But it was certainly unforgettable, and not just because of the sheer discomfort that was submerging myself in the ocean in the dead of winter.

I left the day with an overwhelming sense of camaraderie — for the dozens of volunteers who made it possible; the hundreds of folks I bonded with through our shared experience; the locals who came out to watch; and for Bill, whom I managed to catch up with for a post-plunge photo at the Freak Bar — that will surely outlast any physical aftereffects.

I hope to hold onto this feeling of unity with my borough and its people — a connection often hard to make in a place with some 2.6-million residents — as the months ahead unfold, to serve as a reminder of how we began the year together.

And if that fails, I’ll always have my photo with Bill.

Updated 1:19 pm, January 3, 2019
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