Recommended soundtrack to listen to as you read:  Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, “Higgs Boson Blues” and “Push the Sky Away”, the concluding two tracks to their 2013 album Push the Sky Away. Both songs were performed on Nick Cave’s recent tour with Colin Greenwood (of Radiohead fame). I was fortunate to attend their show in New York’s Beacon Theatre on October 8, 2023.

All Together Now

June 20, 2024

David Scharf, CCA President

It’s a cold winter’s day on the shores of the mighty Atlantic Ocean. A resplendent sun shines bright over the noon sky, while the air below rests peacefully, belying the frigid sub-freezing temperature and the foot-high snowfall that covers the beach. Surprisingly, a figure appears to be moving through the snow. No, not a figure. An actual group of people - shockingly sporting only swimsuits - and making their way towards the icy ocean water.

Who are these courageous souls braving this cold?

They are members of a cold-water swimming group that has been venturing into the Atlantic every winter Sunday since 1903. They are the Coney Island Polar Bear Club. And amongst their 100-odd members is one David Scharf. Yes, I am a long-time member of this club, having joyously joined after my first swim in 2004, and still swimming several hundred swims later.

“Why?” you may ask.  

Before answering that we need to first discuss what led me to doing my first swim back in 2004. For regular readers of this blog, you will recall a difficult time in my life.* I was very sick with something rather rare that had doctors stumped. And without treatment, I would not have lived a long life. Fortunately, we were able to find (thanks to my wife’s relentless search, which is its own inspiring story) a team of talented cutting-edge surgeons who were able to do what was an experimental surgery – with complete success!  As the actuary in me likes to say, they returned me back to our regularly scheduled mortality tables.

Later that year (we are still in 2004), with Thanksgiving fast approaching, my wife suggested that I do “one of those crazy polar bear plunges” as a way to celebrate the renewal of life that I had thankfully been given. Little did I know that it would not be just one swim on that Sunday prior to Thanksgiving, but the first of many. For the last 20 years I have been swimming with the Polar Bears on as many Sundays (from November to April) that I am available. For me they are the best way to start a week and certainly the highlight of it.  And no sunscreen required!**

Okay, so that is how I began to do these swims with this amazing group. But the reason why we come back – week after week, year after year – is what I want to share with you now. There is something special about our swims. The group is made up of people from all walks of life - diverse cultures, varied ages, different genders – each person coming with their individual background and unique circumstances (a testament to the great melting pot that is New York). We enter the water together, each bringing our own private thoughts and troubles, stresses and uncertainties. And then something magical happens. We are now all focused on the same thing, feeling the same feelings. We are all in the ice-cold water together, experiencing together the joy of life (some might say near-death!) with an indescribable feeling of extreme exhilaration paired with a serene sense of complete calmness. Regardless of who you are, what your background is, whatever situation you may be in – in the water we are all experiencing the same thing, at the same time, all together.    

Which leads me to my concluding thought. There is a lot of good work being done in the area of diversity. However, there is one key component of diversity that is essential and warrants more attention, and that is doing things together. While the incredible intensity and singular focus of our polar bear swims certainly helps achieve a sense of unity rather quickly, that very same thing also can happen, perhaps in slower fashion, with any group activity. It could be a book club, a sports team, a work project – choose your own adventure that will lead you to doing things with more people, different people – all truly together.

*See my March blog post (titled “A Walk Down Memory Lane”) for more on this story.  

**The above is not intended as medical advice; consult with your physician before going to the beach.