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Thousands of polar bear plungers get reprieve from last week's polar vortex

Robert Browne, 17, goes in the water in

Robert Browne, 17, goes in the water in his wheelchair with his father Timothy Browne, of Long Beach, at the Long Beach Polar Bears annual Super Bowl Splash on Sunday. Robert was injured in a surfing accident in 2014. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Under bright skies and near-50-degree weather, participants in the 2019 Long Beach polar bear plunge were lucky the day fell during a warm-up period and not last week’s brutal polar vortex that brought low single-digit temperatures and subzero wind chills.

It made little difference to a shivering Bernard Eyssalenne, 52, of Valley Stream, whose punishment for coming in last in his fantasy football league was a chilly dip in the Atlantic. Eyssalenne blamed his fantasy football loss on Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell, who was on his roster but sat out the entire season in a contract dispute.

“This is the last time you are going to see me out here,” he told his fellow fantasy leaguers, who were laughing and taking cellphone photos. “Le’Veon Bell, where you at?”

Eyssalenne was one of thousands who charged the water for the annual Super Bowl Splash, hosted by the Long Beach Polar Bear Club since 2000 to benefit the Make-A-Wish Foundation. The event honors Paulie Bradley, a Long Beach boy who dreamed of becoming a lifeguard but died of cancer in 1997 at 4 years old.

The plunge typically raises about $500,000 each year and has a fundraising total so far of more than $6.4 million, said Tracey Anton, senior marketing and communications manager for Make-A-Wish in the metro and western New York region.

It can draw as many as 7,000 plungers and 20,000 spectators, she said.

“One of the reasons it has grown so much is the support of the Long Beach community,” said Anton, who said she also took the plunge. “Everyone takes care of their neighbors.”

For those who are apprehensive, Anton described it as an addictive and energizing experience.

Trish Beaumont, 50, a Long Beach special education teacher and a friend of Paulie Bradley’s family, recalled there were just 20 swimmers when she began participating in 2001. Beaumont, who raised more than $3,000 for this year’s event, said she and others have helped it grow by touting the plunge as an invigorating mid-winter experience.

“Your skin is beautiful for like two weeks after,” she said.

As for tolerating the chill, everyone on the beach Sunday afternoon had  his own strategy.

Joseph Donarumma,  34, of Levittown, d a U.S. Marine, performed calisthenics on the beach but said it wasn’t his only method to ease the stinging cold.

“That’s what Jameson [Irish whiskey] is for,” he said. “You dry off and then you have another shot.”

The official plunge was set for 1:30 p.m., though early birds starting sooner.

Among those was Timothy Browne, 50, of Long Beach, who carried his paralyzed son, Robert, 17, into the water with the help of a beach wheelchair. The Brownes have long participated in the plunge, but it was the first time Robert felt up to it since losing the use of his legs and hands in a 2014 surfing accident.

“I go in in the summer all the time, but to feel the refreshing winter air again? It’s great,” Robert Browne said.

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