Breaking the Ice at Coney Island

Polar Bears tighten plunges after death last New Year's Day

Although the incident was unrelated to the death of Mohan Seneviratne, Scarcella worried that the two events, taken together, might lead to the impression of lawlessness.

Then there's the problem with some of the Russians in neighboring Brighton Beach, a population known for enthusiastic winter swimmers who choose to shun the Polar Bear Club.

On a recent 36-degree morning, Brighton Beach is the picture of urban serenity, the sands empty, the sky cloudless and blue—save for a slice of the moon still noticeable at 7 a.m.—the Parachute Jump visible down the boardwalk in one direction, the truss spans of the Marine Parkway–Gil Hodges Memorial Bridge in the other.

When a bleached-blonde woman in her sixties peels off her sweats near a collection of rocks, she becomes so perturbed by a reporter's questions—"It's very cold. You distract me!"—that she turns and marches toward the direction of the Moscow and Tatiana restaurants on the boardwalk. Down the beach, though, a slate-haired man runs back and forth, shirtless and barefoot on the frigid sand, waving over his head at a pair of appropriately dressed women—one from Odessa, the other from Poland—sitting some distance away, cross-legged on towels, listening to the tones of a flute on a Falun Gong tape. When approached, the man recommends an interview with "the doctor," an athletic-looking individual in a bathing suit and wool hat, frolicking with a half-dozen others in the water beside a jetty.

The doctor is actually a 45-year-old dentist named Igor, who literally hails from Siberia.

Like other Russian speakers, Igor opts to swim in small, unorganized groups. With the Polar Bears, he says, there is an "English problem, life-experience problem. You crack a joke, no one understand you."

Eighty-five-year-old Milya Friedman joins the conversation, gesturing at three bumps in his scalp. "I was in the Red Army." He holds his finger to his head like a pistol. "Three times. I go in the cold water. The water helps."

Asked about the Polar Bears, Friedman says, "They're nice people. I know them. But they only go Sunday. You need to go every day. You go every day, the medicine go in the garbage."

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