“Polar Bears” step into Orchard Beach waters

Call them crazy, but these Bronxites wanted to make a big splash – plunging into Orchard Beach in the dead of winter.

“It’s a natural high,” said Jim McDonnell of Country Club. He was one of dozens of thrill seeking locals sprinting into the sandy shores as part of the third annual Bronx Polar Bears swim on Saturday, Feb. 16.

They teamed with the Brooklyn Polar Bears, the popular sister group known for taking its eccentric swim into Coney Island Beach every New Years Day.

McDonnell joined his fellow polar bears for about 20 minutes, his adrenaline jacking up once he climbed into the 34-degree water.

“It clears the head,” said McDonnell, a custodial engineer who swam with wife Lisa, honoring the Valentine’s Day theme of swimming with “someone you love.”

He’s been treading the frigid ocean for 11 years, an activity he credits to curing his bronchitis.

“I haven’t had it in a long time,” he boasted.

He’s now become a regular polar bear, swimming in Coney Island or in a backyard beach belonging to his Locust Point neighbor.

McDonnell brushed off feelings of hypothermia.

Sharon Harris, an honorary polar bear who was invited to the weekend swim, prepared by taking cold showers.

Harris strapped on her pink swimsuit and boxing gloves, a symbolic gesture of her “knocking out” breast cancer.

Her remission has given her a second chance at life, embracing venues like the swim.

“Being that I beat cancer everything,” said Harris. “I said ‘this is my second time at life; I’m going to do it.’”

She later grabbed a cup of soup from celebrity chef and fellow swimmer Terry French, and drove back home without drying up. “I just came back home wet.”

Back in the early 2000s, the Bronx Polar Bears were active until funding for permits and insurance dried up. But public access station BronxNET stepped in to help rejuvenate the annual swim.

“It’s cathartic, it’s refreshing,” said Michael Knobbe, head of BronxNET and avid swimmer.

The Bronx Polar Bears intend to come back every Valentine’s Day.

David Cruz can be reach via e-mail at DCruz@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 742-3383

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