Our Town: Is the polar plunge panacea, placebo or just pain?

Our Town: Is the polar plunge panacea, placebo or just pain?
The polar plunge has become a popular ritual today which begs the question why. (Photo by Tom Ferraro)


How does a craze change into a trend and then into a movement?  Well, we may be witnessing a tipping point in a new ritual called the polar plunge. In years gone by, there were a few guys at Coney Island taking a dunk in the frigid waters on New Year’s Day to start the year off with a bang. That craze has now become a trend and to learn more I went out to Field 5 on the Robert Moses Parkway to see for myself.

At exactly 1 p.m. every Sunday, a group of 50 intrepid warriors meet, get a pep talk from Brendan Cooke, who started this thing, and off they run into the deep. The water in the ocean this time of year may be around 40 degrees and I sampled how it felt by sticking just my right hand into the water.  The pain was immediate and excruciating and my first thought was that the scene in “Titanic” when Leonardo DiCaprio was in the arctic waters holding onto Kate Winslet was a falsehood.  He would have been paralyzed and dead within 15 seconds.

And yet I was about to witness a large group of men and women, ranging in age from 20 to about 70 take the plunge.   I was smart enough to interview a few of them prior to the plunge, forecasting that much like shock therapy, they may not be coherent afterwards. What most of them told me about why they do this each week is that it has mental health benefits and one feels clear-headed, less anxious, less depressed and on top of the world for a few days after taking the polar plunge.

I met Branden Cooke’s dad, Desmond, who has taken the 100-day challenge, which means he must do the polar plunge for 100 straight days.   He told me he is 59 years old but, in fact, he looks much younger. So much for plastic surgery.   All you need to do is to swim in really cold water every day and wind up looking 20 years younger.

They say the man who is responsible for the craze, turned trend, is Wim Hof, a Scandinavian who has many YouTube videos about the benefits of this kind of treatment. But it takes more than a charismatic leader to create a trend as Malcom Gladwell eloquently wrote about in “The Tipping Point.” It is clear that an ascetic ritual like this will only catch on if the culture is in need of it.

Psychologist Eric Erickson once wrote that the ocean represents mother and to enter the ocean is to be symbolically reborn once again.  Much like the final scene in the film “Shakespeare in Love” where Shakespeare is in deep despair having lost his true love and starts to write his next play called “The Twelfth Night.”

He begins by saying: “My story starts at sea. A perilous voyage to an unknown land.  A shipwreck. The wild waters roar and heave. The brave vessel is dashed all to pieces. And all the helpless souls within her drowned. All save one….a lady whose soul is greater than the ocean and her spirit stronger than the sea’s embrace. Not for her a watery end. But a new life beginning on a strange shore. It will be a love story, for she will be my heroine for all time and her name will be Viola.”

Repair and rebirth in the sea is also the theme in the film  “Castaway” starring Tom Hanks.  “Castaway” is basically a remake of the literary classic “Robinson Crusoe,” which also was about a shipwreck in the ocean and a rebirth. And all this begs the question of why our culture needs rebirth in the first place.   And the answer to that is simple.  COVID put the whole world in a death grip from which we all need to be reborn.  So why not use the ocean as the remedy? The ocean is the only thing bigger than COVID.

Furthermore, America has been in grave need of learning more about asceticism.  We live in the land of good fortune and a land of plenty. Our plentitude has bred into each of us a consumeristic, overindulged, overeaten, fat-as-can-be life of TV watching. This is not healthy.  I see the polar plunge as a much needed, Spartan-like ascetic ritual and for that we ought to take note and be thankful.

Branden Cooke’s polar plunge reminded me of Tony Robbins and his firewalk of the 1970s, which was another fearsome ritualized process to help people to grow up and be reborn.    Branden Cooke said to me that he started his Sunday Swim (Sundayswimx.com) to help make the world a better place.  He said, “People have too many fears and too many worries.   If you do this polar plunge, it will help you overcome your fears and give you peace.  If you can do this, you can do almost anything you want.  All it takes is a leap of faith and a little support.”

So I guess I’ll be seeing you next Sunday, 1 p.m., Parking Lot 5 on the Robert Moses State Parkway.

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  1. Tom,

    Thank you for taking the time out Sunday to experience the Sundayswimx.com plunge with us!!!
    Your article was awesome and I for one,appreciated the kind words you had for this 59-year-old man!!!


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