Two friends, on little more than a whim, plunged into the frigid ocean waters off Long Beach one Super Bowl Sunday not too long ago.

As Kevin McCarthy and Pete Meyers told the story Sunday -- describing the origin of their annual charity polar bear swim event -- it seemed almost inconceivable to them that it launched 14 years ago.

An estimated 6,000 swimmers and, organizers say, 20,000 spectators now join them in what resembles a boardwalk Mardi Gras, spanning the length of two city beaches.

After the first official "Super Bowl Splash," organized two years after the initial plunge, raised $8,000 for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, cumulative donations are about to top $3 million.

"The fact that this has grown into what it is, it's just incredible," Michael Fagen, a Long Beach city councilman, said of the city-sponsored event.

Never underestimate the power of a good cause, said McCarthy, 53. He and Meyers, 48, took their inaugural polar bear dip in 1998, mostly to celebrate McCarthy's 40th birthday.

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By 2000, they had linked the swim to Make-A-Wish in honor of 3-year-old Paulie Bradley, who died of cancer in 1997 before realizing his wish to play on a Puerto Rican beach.

"It's all because this is for the kids," McCarthy, a city water plant worker, said of the event's popularity.

Sunday's swim had an added buzz because of the Giants' Super Bowl appearance. Organizers called it a "Giants Beach Bash," and attendees listened, wearing team-licensed beach towels, swim trunks and winter caps en masse. Funds are raised through individual sponsorships and Long Beach Polar Bear merchandise sales.

The only person brave enough to wear Jets green had his face covered -- he was dressed as Gumby.

"This is an opportunity for Jets fans to go in the water and wash away the misery of another year without a Super Bowl," said Meyers, a Giants fan who works at Lincoln Center in Manhattan, needling the Jets-loving McCarthy.

With temperatures in the mid-40s Sunday afternoon and the ocean a crisp 42 degrees, swimmers were in good spirits.

Mitchell Grant, a commercial property manager in Manhattan, struck frequent poses on the beach in his white gym shorts, electric-red wig and Giants-blue body paint, with a white "NY" painted on his back.

Passersby stopped to shake his hand or snap a photo. What they didn't know is that Grant also contributed significantly to the cause, raising almost $5,000 through sponsorships for Make-A-Wish this year, his third as a polar bear.

"This is all-American," said the Long Island City resident, scanning the eclectic crowd, which included families with children, seniors and college cheerleading squads. "Check out this scene. Nothing is better than this."