People wear their sweatshirts like a badge of honor after going in the water. You gotta EARN the sweatshirt! – Kevin McCarthy & Pete Meyers.
Kevin McCarthy was turning 40 and there was an item he wanted to check off his bucket list: A plunge with the Polar Bears.
Since family birthdays and holiday obligations always seemed to interfere with him attending Coney Island’s New Years Day Swim – he and good friend Pete Meyers came up with an alternative day that carried some significance. Super Bowl Sunday.
In 1998, Super Bowl Sunday was a brutally cold and windy day. Only a few family members could be coaxed to accompany Pete and Kevin to Grand Beach to witness their dive into the icy waters of Long Beach. They changed under the boardwalk (back when there was an under the boardwalk) and – as Pete vividly describes, “With white bellies, we ran out into the water – it was low tide so we had to run really far, out past the jetties.”
Their towel holders (aka their children) were too young to grasp the significance of their important position and promptly lost interest before their dads even emerged from the water. Kevin and Pete came out to find their towels rolling down the beach like tumbleweeds. “It was brutal. We didn’t know back then about taking care of our feet and heads. I was cold for the rest of the day,” Pete remembers.
When Kevin got home he said to himself, “Wow, that was pretty stupid – you could have had a heart attack!” He felt so bad that he even wrote a letter to his family, apologizing for putting their welfare in danger and letting them know that he did have insurance in case anything ever happened to him. He laughs at that memory now.
When 1999 rolled around they forgot about the pain and rallied about 18 neighbors to join them. In 2000, they produced sweatshirts for fun – and enticed around 50 people to dive in.
2001 was the year their stunt became an event. Good friend Mike Bradley and his wife Patty suggested they tie the swim to a fundraiser for Make-A-Wish, a foundation they had become involved with when their little boy Paulie was diagnosed with Leukemia. His wish was to go play on a beach in Puerto Rico, but he passed away in 1997 before his wish could be granted.
Kevin and Pete loved the idea. They spread the word and got participation to grow in the hundreds. They also raised 8 thousand dollars.
Every year the event grew bigger – and each year the city got more nervous. There’s no line in the budget for lifeguards in February, nor is beach traffic ever a problem in the winter. But the popularity of this event changed all that. The city asked them to move the swim to Riverside so they could manage traffic and parking more efficiently. Pete and Kevin agreed – and welcomed their involvement, “It’s a good thing, this event brings in August traffic.” The plunge has been held on Riverside ever since, with the exception of 2013 when it returned to Grand Beach because the new boardwalk was under construction.
In 2004, the Long Beach Polar Bears became “official.” They were granted charity status, got insurance, and today have more volunteers than they can put to work. You can find their website at longbeachpolarbears.org. Or link here for their Facebook page.
I’ve plunged a few times – but I’m in – and I’m out! So I’ve never even noticed the 25 lifeguards, standing by in case of emergency in their wetsuits. Kevin says there’s also a lot of EMT’s out there. He quips, “It’s like a cheap stress test!”
The logo was designed by Pete, Kevin and Mike, who take a vote every August to pick the upcoming color. Sometimes the color they choose carries a special significance. For instance, Mike’s wife Patty had long wanted white, but they always voted against it with the excuse that white gets too dirty. But when Patty passed away in 2009 they voted in white in her honor.
The unveiling of the color on Irish Day has become a big Long Beach tradition. It started quite a few years ago when the AOH (Ancient Order of Hibernians) donated a booth so the Polar Bears could kick-off their fundraising a few months early. Be assured there’s no point in asking prior to Irish Day what color the shirts will be. These guys know how to keep a secret!
The art work also changes year to year. The current red Polar Wear has a white silhouette of a small boy fishing. That’s Paulie, and it’s modeled after a picture of him that’s posted on their website. This year marks 20 years since he passed away.
For years, the tireless trio sold the Polar Wear out of their homes. People would knock on their door at all hours, even Christmas Eve. Pete and Kevin credit E-Van Creations with saving their lives (and probably their marriages too!) by offering to stock and sell the clothing out of their Rockville Center storefront.
They anticipated that fundraising would decline in 2013 as a result of Hurricane Sandy, but it turned out to be their biggest year yet. “As soon as everyone got their FEMA money they were out buying sweatshirts!” They lost a lot of inventory in the storm – and altered the post-Irish Day batch to add a line that read Bruised but not Broken underneath the logo.
Their marriage with Make-A-Wish has been unbelievably rewarding in so many ways, but especially when they get the chance to meet a kid who got their wish granted. Not every kid has a terminal disease. The criteria for wish granting is “life-threatening illness.” Pete says a majority of the wishes is to go to Disney World, but he remembers some unique ones, like the kid who wanted to see a Lamborghini being built in Italy, and another who wanted to surf with Bethany Hamilton, the girl who lost her left arm in a shark attack.
“Those wishes mean so much.” says Kevin. “And Long Beach really rallies around causes and gives generously.”
To date, the Long Beach Polar Bears Super Bowl Splash has raised 5.2 million for Make-A-Wish. Estimates put attendance at seven thousand swimmers and ten thousand watchers every year. Pete and Kevin are proud that the event is completely home-grown and sponsor free.
The sweatshirts are now ubiquitous. I think most locals would agree they would be hard pressed to get through a day in Long Beach without seeing that logo on someone. For Pete and Kevin, it’s a thrill to see them everywhere they go. Pete remembers one day in particular when he saw people in four different colors on a short drive home from Lynbrook.
They happily donate baskets of Polar Wear to be used as raffle prizes at other Long Beach charity events. Those baskets usually contain a tote bag – which is not for sale. You can only win one in a charity raffle.
Inspired by the charitable success of the Long Beach Splash, several other polar bear clubs have followed suit and tied their swim to a particular charity. The Coney Island Polar Bear Club raises money for Camp Sunshine at their annual New Years Day plunge. And on March 18, 2017, TOBAY will host Freezin’ for a Reason, to benefit Special Olympics New York.
The Long Beach founders are now regulars at other polar events, with some “celebrity status.” Kevin jokes, “It’s like a club now. We wear robes and smoke cigars,”
“We’re Polar Bear big shots.” laughs Pete.
All joking aside, Kevin admits, “We never imagined this, and now it’s like 20 years. It really taught people you can do a little thing and you never know.”
This year’s plunge takes place Sunday, February 5th, 2017. Keeping with tradition, Pete, Kevin and Mike will be the last ones in – and will take the plunge together.
It’s truly amazing that this all began with an item on a bucket list. Maybe it’s time to think about what’s on yours – and do it. It might just change the world.
Coming up next on Short Stories from Long Beach: A chat with Jean Duffy, founder of the Irish School of Dance.