MAKING A SPLASH
WITH THE CONEY ISLAND POLAR BEARS
Photography by Carol Dronsfield
Story by Karen Ghostlaw Pomarico
If you live in New York State in the winter it is best if you find something fun to do to help the short days go by over these long cold months. Some ski, skate, fish, snow mobile, while others who live in Coney Island in Brooklyn, and the surrounding boroughs of New York have found their own way to enjoy and be inspired through the short days and bitter cold of winter.
In 1903 Bemarr Macfadden founded the oldest cold water swim club in the United States,‘The Coney Island Polar Bear Club’. He was called ‘The Father of Physical Culture’, being an early advocate for a nutritional diet along with physical exercise. Bemarr believed training the body to endure the cold elements made you stronger and healthier, in body and mind. He was convinced that the dips in the cold water during the winter months boosted your stamina, virility, as well as your immunity.
I spoke to the President of The Coney Island Polar Bears, Dennis Thomas, and he shared the club's member information, and what it takes to be a member. “Currently we have about 170 members on our roster and have around 80-90 members at each of our weekly swims. To become a full member, aspiring Cubs must do 12 swims within a single season and be voted in by the membership. To remain a member in good standing, bears must do at least 4 swims within a season.”
While the Bears swim every Sunday, rain, snow, or shine, Dennis believes they are best known for their annual Coney Island New Year's Day Plunge where around 3,000 swimmers take a refreshing plunge in the Atlantic Ocean with an additional 10,000 spectators watching. The event has always been free to the public, but we do encourage all attendees to make a donation to our charity partners. In the past we have supported the Special Olympics, Camp Sunshine in Casco Maine, and recently cultural organizations in the Coney Island community such as the NYC Aquarium, Coney Island USA, Coney Island History Project, Coney Island YMCA, Parachute Arts, Friends of Kaiser Park, and New York State Marine Education Association.”
The Coney Island Polar Bears descend upon the boardwalk every Sunday from November through April for a dip in the frigid cold air and freezing temperatures of the ocean at Coney. Photographers and filmmakers from all over like to experience and share the inspiration with the bears and are dedicated to their swim, becoming part of that extended family and Coney Island community. Carol Dronsfield is a photographer currently residing in Brooklyn New York, and has committed her Sundays to photographing the Bears. Carol shares her amazing portraits of the Coney Island Polar Bears, documenting over twenty two swims while getting to know the bears. Carol shares her ideas behind this series of work she has created with passion and respect for the Bears, and for the Coney Island community. These are her observations:
“With these portraits, I aim to capture the joy, bravery, determination, and love for the frigid Atlantic Ocean these Bears all possess.
Bears may be young or old, male or female, large or small, tattooed or plain, fit or not; most of all they are a dedicated group of swimmers, an eclectic tribe.
It’s a Sunday at 1:00pm on the beach in Coney Island. A typical Winter day at the height of the Bears’ season: Water temp 38 degrees. Air temp 32 degrees. Wind chill makes it feel subzero.
Dress code: bathing attire. The nastier the weather, the happier the Bears are at the beach.
Some Bears radiate calm, a healing effect the water has on the individual; they worship the ocean. With some, I capture the exuberant reaction to the cold waters rushing over them. I look for Bears who enter and emerge from the water as a group, as if taking the ocean by storm. I try to give the Bears their space, not to interrupt their Sunday ritual; it can feel like witnessing something sacred.
There are close bonds between Bears; I’ve watched some casual swimmers become official Bears at pre-swim ceremonies. Graduating from “Cub” to “Bear” is a big deal.
I’ve watched as the American flag and the Polar Bear flags are placed in the sand near the water where they swim. I watch with my lens as the Bears march to the water. The group forms a circle, they chant and warm up. They race into the water, frolicking and forming a circle holding hands. They stay in the water anywhere from 5 minutes to 1/2 hour.
I try to capture the mutual respect and camaraderie of the Bears: running into the water together, coming out together, encouraging a novice Bear hesitating at the water’s edge.
I savor the surprises that come with every Sunday swim. Whether it’s a Bear arriving in costume, bringing a favorite inflatable toy, doing a dance on the beach, their joy is contagious.”
The Coney Island Polar Bears are a uniquely diverse group of people that are connected with bonds that only come close to the ties you make within your own personal family. We usually spend years developing friendships and making lasting connections. Somehow those connections are made in the instant you make that plunge and are determined to become a bear. Your family of experienced Bears, welcome and guide you in, often offering some advice, a warm hand, an extra pair of swim shoes, with a big smile, and eyes full of inspiration. In those few minutes societal and cultural differences are washed away at sea, and they are all just simply Coney Island Polar Bears.
So let’s meet some of The Coney Island Polar Bears.
Amr El Ghaziri - aka Amr Bear
Meet Amr Bear:
Amr El Ghaziri was born and lived his younger years in Alexandria, Egypt. At the age eight Amr moved with his family to Dubai, United Arab Emirates. He remembers watching the few American shows on their television, Beverly Hills 90210 and Baywatch. It was a very impressionable age in a young boy's life. When Amr’s family moved to the United States, he was in his early teens when Amr and his brother Assem decided to become Lifeguards. When Amr was in High School he joined the swim team. In the locker room was a poster for summer jobs lifeguarding at Coney Island. Amr remembers his awakening, “zero espionage, no submarines, no helicopters or jet skis, absolutely nothing like Baywatch.” But it was a life’s dream come true for Amr and Assem.
As a lifeguard at Coney you work the famous Coney Island Polar Bears New Years Day Swim. At first Amr thought they were crazy. He could not imagine swimming in the frigid temperatures and icy waters of Coney Island In January. What good reason could they have, wondered Amr. One New Year's Day, he got his answer, when he jumped in to help a struggling swimmer, as he helped the swimmer to safety, Amr was exhilarated and was finally feeling the energy and inspiration he had witnessed in the spirit of the others over the years. It changed Amr, and now it became a New Year’s Day tradition for Amr, his brother Assem, and two other close friends Matt Huff, and Brian Steele. For the next eleven years they would not join the official Polar Bear swim, but would sneak their dip outside the boundaries, coining themselves the ‘Crime Dippers.’
This year a little unexpected bump into a friend on the boardwalk changed the course of his future. Amr explains. “This year 2022 was different. My friend Doug, a fellow New York City union Ironworker Doug Wenz, ran into me on the boardwalk and I noticed he had a Polar Bear jacket on. I asked where I could buy one and he informed me that you have to join. Doug invited Amr to join the Bears. Amr admits to not realizing what the bears really do, when they are out there in the water. He had always jumped in, then ran out. But he learned the very first day, this was not a frivolous act of insanity, but a process of teaching your body to adapt to the elements. The first time Amr almost felt like he was not going to make it out of the water it was so cold, and as the others just stood in the waters, Amr’s body was challenged. An older wiser Bear came to Amr and grasped his hand and offered him to join the five minute circle. All the Bears hold hands at the five minute mark and make a circle, and take turns dipping. If you last you may join the second ten minute circle. Amr said that after the five minute mark, something changed. His breathing slowed down, as did his rapid heart rate. He began not feeling as cold, assimilating to the water. Amr not only made it to the five minute circle, but was welcomed into the ten minute one that day as well. Only forward, never back, and in April of this year Amr was voted into the official Coney Island Polar Bear Club.
Amr is a New York City Local 40 Union Ironworker that has a lot to celebrate this year! Not only has he officially become a Bear, and now has his Bear family, but Amr is engaged to be married to his beautiful fiancé Alexandra Avena on November 10, 2022! 2022 is going to be a year that marks a Cornerstone in Amr’s life. Expanding his family and embracing his community in new ways will bring him many rewards in the future.
There is another bear I would like to introduce you to that has made a huge impact in Coney Island with her art.
Danielle Bear - aka Danielle Mastrion
Meet Danielle Bear:
Danielle Mastrion has always loved the ocean, and has a warm place in heart for Coney Island. Danielle grew up in Coney Island and she has always swam through fall into spring. The Polar Bears were not unfamiliar to Danielle, they have long been a part of the Coney Island Community. Danielle has participated in the famous ‘Coney Island Polar Bear New Year’s Day Swim’ for as long as she can remember. She always told herself, “One day I will become a real bear, not just a New Year Bear.” This Easter Sunday will be Danielle’s 3rd Anniversary, for becoming a Coney Island Polar Bear. She was voted in on April 17, 2019.
Danielle has steady employment as a ‘Live Painter’ on Sundays at ‘Kitchen 21’ restaurant on the boardwalk. ‘Live Painting’ is a form of visual performance art where artists like Danielle complete a visual art piece as, or as part of a public performance. For a few weeks during a season of her ‘Live Painting’ performances, the Bears decided to do their swims at ‘Kitchen 21’ instead of the usual Polar Bear Bay. This is how Danielle remembers the day she decided to become a full fledged Coney Island Polar Bear. “So while I was live painting, one of the Bears, Antoinette, came into the restaurant and started chatting me up while painting. I had seen her at a few art shows, and she was also familiar with my work. I asked her what she was doing and she told me she was doing the Polar Bear swims, and I basically screamed that I’ve always wanted to do them. She invited me to do a guest swim the following week. I did about 3-4 guest swims with the bears that season, and Antoinette offered to be my Bear sponsor if I wanted to come back the next season and be a cub. The rest is history. I owe it all to Antoinette!”
The Community and the family bonds they have formed keeps Danielle coming back. “It’s not just a Sunday connection, the Bears all really come through for each other. I feel like I’m having a family gathering every time I swim. I also keep coming back for the physical benefits but also the mental challenges. The plunges are really a mental challenge over a physical challenge, and training your mind to breath through the ‘pain’, the challenge of the temperature, that training stays with you. I feel mentally stronger after I swim, which continues all week long.” The Bears bring a sense of belonging, and as a family they are all there to support one another. They cheer each other on, encourage and uplift one another Danielle says, “in and out of the water.” Danielle adds, “It is also super, super fun!” Danielle strives to reciprocate the positive energy back to all of the Bears. Danielle’s murals and art in Coney Island ‘Give Back’ to the Bears and the Coney Island community as a whole.
Danielle is a huge advocate for ocean clean ups and ‘How to be a responsible beach goer’. She is an advocate for anything positive for Coney. Danielle has painted murals for almost every major artery of Coney Island: The NY Aquarium, Luna Park, Deno's Wonder Wheel Park, The Coney Island Brewery, Coney Island USA, The Cyclone, The Mermaid Parade, The Coney Island History Project, The Coney Island Alliance, Liberation High School in Coney Island, The NY Cosmos, Ruby’s Bar & Grill, and some local businesses in the neighborhood as well. There is a good chance you will see Danielle at work in Coney Island, often throughout the boardwalk and their side streets. Stop by and say hello and be inspired by her work. Share in the positive energy of the community. You can find Danielle and links to her art and work in the Coney Island on instagram, @daniellebknyc, and on her website.
Often the inspiration and tradition is passed on, gifted to someone else to join. These two bears happen to be Father and son.
Left: John Calandra and son Luke Calandra - aka John and Luke Bear, Right: Luke Bear
Meet John and Luke Bear:
John Calandra and his son Luke, bring a special father-son tradition to the Coney Island Polar Bears. John first plunged with the Bears in 2006, but became a member in 2010. Luke has been swimming with John since he was one, John was worried at first about Luke in the cold waters of Coney. John quickly realized Luke somehow knew his limits and thrived with brief swims. But the energy of the club is what really made Luke want to be a member. So it was no surprise when Luke was voted in as a proud new young cub of the Coney Island Polar Bear family on March 20,2022. John shares, “To see Luke succeed at goals he sets, makes me tear with joy.” The Polar Bears' common interest in cold water binds them closer than real family at times.
In summary, for John and Luke the Coney Island water cleanses away all of the craziness they deal with in their everyday lives. It has become a father-son tradition that John and Luke have shared since Luke was just starting to walk. They share their Sundays and fill them with positive energy and inspiration that carries with them home and to their communities that extend beyond Coney Island.
Meet another bear pair, a true love story of commitment and love for their communities, the bears, and for one another.
Left: Christian Molieri and Kate O'Donnell - aka Christian and Kate Bear, Right: Kate Bear
Meet Christian and Kate Bear:
Christian Molieri is a nonbinary trans masculine radical social worker originally from Philadelphia, living in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn. They work for one of the largest AIDS Service Organizations in the country, based in NYC. They have worked for over 20 years in HIV Prevention, Harm Reduction, LGBTQIA2S+ and Gender Diverse communities locally as well as nationally. Christian works relentlessly to break down binaries and subvert bureaucracies and systems of despair and disrepair, which further oppress already oppressed and marginalized communities in order to create and build mindful, intentional, communities. Christian can be found near the ocean year round, occassionally in a tutu, as they says, “always queer as fuck”.
Kate O’Donnell is a Coney Island regular living in Brighton Beach, on the border of Coney Island. Kate is a chef that often volunteers her services to help others in need. She has volunteered for Sandy Relief Kitchen, after hurricane Sandy, as well as being a major contributor to the efforts of the Brooklyn Relief Kitchen.
Kate shared an experience that stayed with her all her life. “I started swimming with the club because growing up my Dad would take me and my brothers to the beach on Long Island to swim on Christmas Day. For years I only watched them and took pictures. I moved to south Brooklyn to be near the water, just seeing the water makes me happy. To be able to walk on the beach, to smell the ocean air, feel the sun on my skin, watch the sun rise, or set, it is all such a gift.” Kate officially made her 12 swims, and was voted in on March 4, 2018.
Kate and Christian met in September 2021, and Kate made it clear from the start that the Bears were her family, and every Sunday from November through April her Sundays were committed to them. Christian saw the inspiration it brought to Kate and knew they not only wanted to experience this for Kate, but wanted to understand and experience the magic for themselves. On November 7, 2021 Christian took that first step and never looked back. Sunday March 20, 2022 Christian became a bear. They instantly felt the love and acceptance of their new family.
Christian and Kate relate their world to a Venn Diagram. “Community is what we create and build, and there are communities within communities within communities. It’s how we relate interpersonally with one another, as well as with how we show up, authentically, for ourselves, for each other, and for the world, every day.” Each community has different attributes and contributions and they overlap and draw inward to the heart and soul, and then spread out growing and reaching more people and communities all the time.
Meet a Bear who’s childhood dream to become a Coney Island Polar Bear really did come true.
Andrew Samberg - aka Andrew Bear
Meet Andrew Bear:
Andrew Samberg is 56 years old, and has been an Engineer with the New York City Department of Education for 30 years. Born in Canarsie Brooklyn, Andrew moved out to Long Island as a child and has lived there since. Andrew shares his inspiration and drive to becoming a bear.
“Every year, since I was a kid I’ve always seen the New Year’s Day plunge on television and I’ve always wanted to do it. I looked up the Polar Bear club online, and saw that I was able to take a guest swim with the club, and went for my first dip in February 2010. From the first swim I attended, I was made to feel by members of the club, that these people knew me and that we had been friends for years. After my first swim I knew that this was something that I wanted to be a part of every week. I was able to get my 12 swims in and became a member during the 2010/2011 season.”
Andrew is not a religious person, but sees himself as a spiritual person. He describes coming to Coney Island every Sunday as like their Church/Synagogue. It is a personal or spiritual connection that touches the soul.
Andrew describes his extended family. “I consider the members of the club as family and a community that I am honored to be a part of. I look forward to the sense of camaraderie every week! People from all walks of life, white collar, blue collar, every race, religion come together with no prejudice, no judgements and have fun together. Everyone is always in a good mood and I forget about anything that might be troubling me at the time. How can you be stressed about anything when you are in 38F degree water?”
I asked Andrew about the Shark, and its significance. This was his answer.
“A group of friends and I would go to a different Club Med every year starting in my late teens and I brought a 6 foot blow up Godzilla on the trip every year. It was always a big hit during the week and one year I blew it up on the plane on the way down and the stewardess dressed it up. I still have that 6 foot Godzilla and an 8 foot blow up Godzilla as well that I have been taking to the beach with me every time I go to this day. People are always coming up to me telling me how much they love it, how much fun it is and asking to take pictures with it. I have tried to continue that sense of fun with the shark. It too seems to be a hit.”
Andrew brings a sense of adventure and fun in his own unique way and shares his positive energy and drive while he conquers the icy waters at Coney Island with his fellow Polar Bears.
Meet a Bear that was not acclimated to cold weather, but made it her mission to adapt to the cold winters of her new home in the United States.
Left: Carlota Wojnar - aka Carlota Bear
Meet Carlota Bear:
Carlota Wojnar was not from the United States and moved to the Bronx, New York, in 1985. Carlota was only twenty five upon her arrival in New York. She was dreading the cold winters, and winter was approaching very quickly. Carlota came to the realization that if she was staying here, there was no way of avoiding the winter. Carlota searched within and decided, “I better learn to enjoy it!”
Carlotta had a process of learning her own way to adapt to her new environment. She started taking cold showers, and took many walks in the freezing mornings. Then Carlota found the Coney Island Polar Bear Club online and made a call. Carlota was invited to become part of their Bear community, and her first season to share the waters of Coney Island was the season of 2017-2018. Carlota was officially voted in that season in February.
Carlota met some amazing people, describing her Polar Bear community, “I have a community that loves not just the beautiful calming cold waters of Coney Island in the Fall through Spring, but their love for Coney Island and caring about the environment in general.” Carlota shares the comradery of her extended family. “I found that jumping in the water on a freezing day, my Bear family gives me comfort and peace. I think we all give something to the community by being in Coney during winter, people enjoy coming to see us and I enjoy them.” Carlota insists, “I would be more than happy taking the one hour ride to Coney just to meet my Bear brothers and sister and clear my mind of all the events in my life.” Carlota shares in the family commitment of being a bear, it has become a part of her, and is something that will remain an inspiration for the rest of her life.
It is hard enough to imagine walking into the cold icy waters Of Coney island with your eyes wide open. Our next Bear’s eyes are wide open but he has lost his vision and is blind.
Rich Realmuto - aka Rich Bear
Meet Rich Bear:
Rich Realmuto is a husband, father and grandfather. Growing up in Queens, New York, he is a retired teacher in the New York City school system and loved his work. Rich lost his sight at the age of forty. He told me that because of the passage of The Americans with Disability Act, he was able to continue his work until he retired. I quote Rich, “I am now in my seventies and have great vision, but no sight!”
Rich vividly remembers his very first plunge. My first plunge was back in 2011, I didn’t know what to do. The Bears all circled up but I wasn’t a bear. So, they went in and I told my wife, I would be OK and would just walk in. Two guys noticed me earlier with my white cane and came over and asked if they could go in with me. I said sure. That was the hook. We walked into the foam as three crazy guys and walked out as the “Three Amigos”. My friendships both old and new bring me back each season.
Rich finds inspiration in making things for his family, and his extended Polar Bear family.“I still like building things from wood like toy boxes and chairs and name plates for the grandkids. I make and have a goal of setting up a clam shell with an American flag planted in the top with a gold-colored coin with Coney Island New York embossed on it for all the bears. I ask for help from bears to find shells for this goal.”
I found such inspiration in what brought Rich to the Coney Island Polar Bears. He told me, “Being a blind person, I needed a goal that would place me on equal footing with sighted folks. The Cold water of Coney Island was what I came up with. I contacted Dennis Thomas and he said that I needed to make 12 plunges between November and April and then the bears would vote on my acceptance. He also told me that the club was only accepting four cubs and there might not be a slot available for me. Luckily, it was a very cold Winter and I made it!”
What keeps Rich coming back? “Frustration and self-doubt can mount up during the week. I can come to Coney Island on a cold Winter Sunday and focus on the dip and not my insecurities. When I do this every insecurity drops away like the rain off a duck's back. The ocean has always been that for me.” For Rich when I asked him what his ‘Takeaway’ was he joyfully replied,” Well, that is easy. I am a Polar Bear for a few minutes, not everyone can say that. My Sundays at Coney instill confidence in me. And, with all the things that matter, I am OK!” Now that is a takeaway Sunday, with a cherry on top!
Coming to New York from Texas to study and acquire her degree, this bear wins the lottery, ‘The Coney Island Polar Bear Lottery.’
Caroline Quick - aka Caroline Bear
Meet Caroline Bear:
Caroline Quick came to the Bears in September of 2019. She had recently arrived to attend university in New York. Caroline decided to go to Coney Island to see The Warriors at the Coney Island Film Festival, even though she had never been to Coney Island and had little experience with the subway system of the greater metropolitan boroughs of New York. Caroline’s spirit of adventure brought her to Coney Island two hours before the event. Caroline took a stroll down the boardwalk along the beach until she came to the ‘Polar Bear Way’ sign outside of the New York Aquarium’s Education Hall. So this true Texan decides to send an email, intrigued in the cold water swim and the Polar Bears. To Caroline’s surprise she was emailed immediately from the club to tell her she had been entered into the lottery and to come in October, she was a cub. Her fate was sealed and Caroline returned in October again to ‘Polar Bear Way’, but this time as a cub.
Caroline kept coming back for more, it was not a one time dip for Caroline, but became a part of her life. She shares with me, “I keep coming back because these are my most favorite people on earth. I love them so much. The water is medicinal, and it rejuvenates my Sundays and balances my life, but the people are truly welcoming, loving, and eternally wonderful. You really become part of a chosen family when you become a Bear, and I think that the inclusiveness and acceptance that they've created makes all who join feel at home. The habit of spending your Sundays whooping and yelling and laughing with these people (despite not being able to feel my feet), is therapeutic to me and to so many others I've spoken with, and I'm forever grateful to be a part of it.”
I asked Caroline what do the bears bring to you?
“I think they bring a sense of belonging. Everyone has their own lives, and their own worries, and to be able to come to a group where you can just be hugged, and laugh until you worry even just a little less, is a gift. I think that the Bears have taught me how to be kinder, and how to approach life with a certain level of appreciation.”
This experience changed Caroline and her new family supported her and taught her new ways of experience and enjoy life by supporting and being a supportive community. Caroline explains, “They've really taught me how to love people, and how to be myself. I think that I owe a lot to the Bears in how I navigate New York, and how I approach opportunity; they love wholeheartedly, and never hesitate to give back to their community, particularly Coney Island, which receives donations raised from the New Year's Plunge. Even recently, when we attended Deno's Phoenix fundraiser for the Ukraine, the Bears were endlessly generous in their donations, and they were vocal about spreading awareness for the event on social media. The Bears are amazing in their ability to love and help other people.” Caroline became an official Polar Bear in November 2021.
Past Vice President of The Coney Island Polar Bear Club, this Bear keeps her Bears motivated and inspired, and coming back for more.
Robbie Bailey and Allyson Howard - aka Robbie and Allyson Bear. Allyson became a member of the Coney Island Polar Bears on January 17, 2016.
Meet Robbie Bear:
Robbie Bailey, a North Carolina Native, moved to New York in 1995. She has led the Coney Island Polar Bears in the past as Vice President of their club. She is even married to another Polar Bear, Robert Bailey. Robbie prides herself as a devoted Yankee fan!
I asked Robbie what brought her to the Bears? “As an aspiring photographer, I attended my first Polar Bear swim on Jan 1, 1996. The New Year’s Day attendance back then was comparable to our weekly swims now. It’s been amazing to watch this remarkable tradition evolve and grow over the last 26 years.” Robbie earned her patch on Easter Sunday, 2009, it doesn’t get much better than that!
What keeps Robbie coming back every year? “The fascinating people, the enchanting location, and a commitment to one of NYC’s most beloved and bizarre traditions.”
For Robbie the Bears provide her with a beautifully diverse, eclectic, and supportive community. As a visual storyteller, Robbie is committed, she says, “to preserving our unique role in Coney Island history while also ensuring our place in its future. Putting the place and the people in a positive light is always top priority.”
The Bears have helped Robbie connect to the Coney Island community. Many of the Bears volunteer on New Year’s Day. Robbie shares, “The annual event is a major economic boost to all Coney Island businesses. The money raised helps support nonprofit organizations like the New York Aquarium, the Coney Island History Project, and Coney Island USA.”
Robbie was also a big help in gathering contacts and making connections for this article. A special shout out and thank you to a much respected and admired fellow photographer and colleague, for her contribution and collaboration to The Pictorial-List and our readers, by helping us support the inspirational community of Coney Island Polar Bears.
This Bear was going into the ocean by himself off shore not too far from Coney In the Rockaways, when they found a family in the United States, far from their home in the Ukraine.
Oleg MaryAces - aka Oleg Bear
Meet Oleg Bear:
Oleg MaryAces was not a newcomer to the cold waters of Coney Island. Oleg had actually been going into the ocean by himself at the Rockaways, and with friends in Coney Island, Brooklyn for four winters prior to joining the Polar Bear Cub community. In November of 2020, an official member of the Polar Bears, Naum Barash noticed Oleg and his buddies chilling in the waters at Coney. As most Bears do, they reach out to others that they think share the same connections with cold water, and invite Oleg and his friends to join the Bears the following Sunday. Inspired by the invitation, they did!
Oleg shares his commitment to the bears “I am very inspired by the diversity of the Bears. There is such a wide range of ages, nationalities, genders, and backgrounds, proving that humans of all kinds are able to share a deep level of comradery and mutual appreciation.”
I asked Oleg what do you bring to the Bears? His response was as inspirational as the rest of the bears. “Clearly the Bears are a very courageous bunch. I believe that I contribute to that energy with undaunted positivity.” When I asked him what do you bring back to your community that the Bears have brought you? “My weekly social media posts bring awareness to the health benefits of breathing exercises and winter ocean dips that often inspire others to join a healthier lifestyle.”
Being from the Ukraine in these perilous times, I asked Oleg if his community with the Bears helps him maintain strength and persevere? “ I was born in Odessa, Ukraine in 1983. My parents emigrated to New York in 1994. I have always planned that upon achieving success in the USA, I would come back to Ukraine to help the country and its people reach the prosperity that they deserve. That mission has now become more important than it ever was before. It's critical to gather support for Ukraine as a genocide continues to take place there. The Coney Island Polar Bear Club gives me an opportunity to show support and express awareness to a wider range of people. Several Bears have offered support and their time to volunteering with a local non-profit organization ‘Ukraine and Ukrainians Abroad’ that sends essential supplies into besieged cities in Ukraine.” Oleg finds comfort and solidarity from his fellow Bears, and considers them to be his extended family, supportive and loving in the United States.
Top: Polar Bears Circle, Middle: Polar Bears Group (2.2.2020), Bottom: Mary Bear - aka Mary Isakson
The years come and go, but one is never exactly like the other. There are always new Bears, lifetime Bears, one time Bears, young and old, from all walks of life that bring new spirit and energy everytime they come. They always look forward to seeing what those twenty minutes will bring. One big Happy Family.
We conclude here with Carol’s closing thoughts about her cherished Bear family and beloved community.
“I’ve witnessed so much with my camera during the 22°F Sunday swims I’ve attended; maybe one day I’ll dip my own toe into the frigid surf.
The Bears have shown me their unique personalities and I am grateful that my camera and I have earned their trust. The Bears inspire me; they’ve taught me bravery, determination, friendship; how to seek joy while I’m out on the streets photographing strangers.
A huge thank you to all Bears who have participated in this project. I look forward to continuing the project next season.
Until we meet again at Coney,
“Live in the sunshine, swim the sea, drink the wild air.” Ralph Waldo Emerson”