Long Beach resident Bill Phillips took the plunge for the first time a couple of years after the tradition started in 1998 when Dennis Hickson, a family friend, asked for a ride to the event.
“He said, ‘I want to go down and take a swim,’ so I put my swimming trunks in the car, just in case, to see what was going on,” Phillips recalled. “I got down there with him, and I put my trunks on and we went in together.”
Each year after that, Phillips, Hickson and their friend Bill Holtmeyer came down to the beach to dash into the ice-cold water. About five years after the friends’ first plunge, Hickson died in a motorcycle accident. Since then, Phillips, Holtmeyer and another friend, Jim Whitten, have made it a tradition to attend the event every year in honor of Hickson.
“Every year after that, we come down early, we put the banner up and then we take a swim,” Phillips said. “We always put this banner up for Dennis.”
More than 8,000 people made their way to the beach on Sunday to run into the frigid waters of the Atlantic Ocean to raise money for the Make-A-Wish Metro New York Foundation, while thousands more watched from the shore and the boardwalk.
The Long Beach Polar Bears Super Bowl Splash, organized by the Long Beach Polar Bear Club, helps fulfill the wishes of children with life-threatening medical conditions. Now in its 21st year, the annual plunge has raised more than $5.6 million to date, organizers said, and more than $510,000 was collected this year.
The first splash, in 1998, was a two-man event: Co-founders Kevin McCarthy and Pete Meyers jumped into the Atlantic on the morning of the Super Bowl. They turned the plunge into a charity event in honor of their friend Mike Bradley’s son, Paulie, who died of cancer at age 4. Now, they say, the event gets bigger each year.
“My son Paul wasn’t able to get a wish — he passed before his wish was granted,” Bradley said. “My wife and my family wanted to keep his memory alive. And because of this event, and the Meyers family, and the McCarthy family, we’ve helped many other families have a little peace in their life for the most difficult times they could possibly have.”
Long Beach locals and visitors from around Long Island took the plunge into the 36-degree water, some donning costumes and festive headdresses.
“It’s a holiday in Long Beach. I feel like it’s all about the Polar Bears, and then there’s also some game later,” City Council President Anthony Eramo said before running into the water with a group of about 15 members of the Communications Workers of America. “We all donate to different causes and various things, but to make a dream come true for a child, I think anybody can relate to how special that is.”
Local restaurants and businesses took part in the annual tradition by offering specials throughout the day.
“We’re usually closed during the colder months, but I stayed open today,” said Brian Braddish, owner of Riptides on the boardwalk, who installed a heated enclosure around the establishment in September. “We were happy to stay open for the community. It’s a nice showing of people, like it always is.”
City Councilwoman Anissa Moore commended the organizers’ courage and “all of you who are making this community a great place to live in,” and thanked everyone for keeping Paulie’s Bradley’s memory alive.
“It’s great being here and seeing everybody — it’s another great year,” McCarthy said. “We went in a couple of times, and it’s always a lot of fun.”
State Sen. Todd Kaminsky ran into the water with Nassau County Comptroller Jack Schnirman to support the cause.
“Mother Nature shined down on Long Beach and made sure it was mild enough for an amazing turnout,” Kaminsky said after taking the plunge. “Long Beach spirit was on full display as thousands came out to give a helping hand to others and have a little fun.”
And the spirit of love was in the air. Mastic Beach resident John Conenello knelt on one knee and proposed to his fiancee, Cathy Kourtis of Massapequa, after they ran out of the water. After he popped the question, she wrapped herself in a towel that said, “She said yes!”