Diving into the freezing cold waters of the Vltava River is not most people’s idea of fun. But for members of the Association of Czech Hardy Men and Women and other Polar Bear clubs around the country it is a way of life. Cold showers, winter swimming outdoors and other Spartan ways of adapting to the cold are still practiced by hundreds of Czechs who swear it makes them happier, healthier and generally more resilient.
The country’s hardy men and women generally keep a low profile, but journalists are always out in force for the popular Polar Bear Dive into the Vltava River held on December 27. The Alfred Nikodém Memorial, in which winter swimmers of all ages – 15 to 80 – test their strength and resilience to the cold is a celebration of their personal achievement and a lifestyle established almost a century ago. I met up with the head of the Czech Association of Hardy Men and Women Vladimir Komárek to find out more.
“Winter swimming was first seen in these parts in 1923 when the leading proponent of this Spartan lifestyle, the late Alfred Nikodém, and six other enthusiasts plunged into the freezing cold Vltava River watched by a crowd of stunned on-lookers. Nikodém was a showman who deeply believed in this healthy lifestyle and who did a great deal to gather an audience and draw media attention. He would undertake one of these winter swims dressed in a military uniform swimming with a machine gun in hand or else he would get into a potato bag and tie it around his waist swimming with his hands only in order to get attention. During the years of the First Republic there wasn’t as much to chose from as there is today in the way of entertainment – people didn’t have TV sets and only some had radios - so a spectacle of this kind always drew a crowd.”
But it was more than just a spectacle – Nikodém was propagating a Spartan way of life that included cold showers, sleeping with an open window in the winter, exercising in harsh weather conditions and taking winter swims to gradually adapt one’s body to the cold and increase one’s resilience. People admired the show and slowly Nikodém acquired new devotees. The philosophy spread and the Czech language now has a special word for this activity called “otužování”. Mr. Komárek says Alfred Nikodém’s successor Ondřej Liška also did much to raise its popularity around what was then Czechoslovakia.
“He and a group of friends would travel around the country and play water polo in the winter. This led to people setting up Polar Bear clubs around the country and embracing this philosophy. Recently we had a winter swim from the Czech Republic to Austria – across the former Iron Curtain – and there was just one Austrian taking part. He said that he had been unable to find any other compatriot who practiced winter swimming. And there were hundreds of us Czechs. Similarly, we know there are Polar Bear clubs in neigbouring Poland and Germany but they are not very active so we often have individual Germans or Poles coming over to take part in our races. A Belgian recently joined us too – because they have nothing of this kind at home –no one to race against there. “
Thanks to Alfred Nikodém and Ondřej Liška the tradition of outdoor winter swimming and physical fitness is well-established in the Czech Republic and Slovakia with no comparable activities elsewhere in Europe. The Czech Association of Hardy Men and Women which Vladimir Komárek presides over has close to 70 members but there are twenty to thirty other similar organizations around the country so altogether there are about 400 people in the Czech Republic who have embraced this lifestyle and engage regularly in winter swimming. Vladimir Komárek again:
“In other countries people wade into the water and come out fairly quickly but here we train and harden our bodies to withstand the cold. When Finland hosted a world championship in cold water swimming some years ago participants raced on a 25 meter track. When we have races here the shortest track is 100 meters – that’s for beginners. Most of us swim 750 meters or a kilometer.”
To become a member of one of these associations –or Polar Bear clubs -you must have a sound heart so you need a recommendation from your doctor and then basically it is up to each and every person whether they persevere and overcome the initial problems. People generally start by taking cold showers and swimming out in the open in the summer and then gradually carry on through the autumn and winter. Vladimír Komárek says that he knows from experience that it takes about two years to establish a strong commitment. Some people give up after one season, but after two years they are generally hooked.
“I now swim twice a week for 20 minutes -in all kinds of weather. I feel that that’s just about right. Every day would be exhausting and twice is enough to keep me in shape. The coldest I’ve ever swam is in minus 19 degrees Celsius. Of course, you have to break the ice first. And I stayed in for just 15 minutes, but it was well worth it. It is something that sticks in your mind because it is not something that you do often or even every winter.”
The Czech Association of Hardy Men and Women organizes lots of events throughout the year. For instance in mid-December they christen new members. Vladimir, who has been christened several times over because he likes the ceremony, explains what it entails.
“Its an attractive event for the media because we wear masks and sometimes period swimsuits. The christening ceremony is such that one of us pours a jug of ice cold water over a new member saying “break a leg” and the new member answers “may the devil take you” and then we all go for a swim in the river. Another popular event we organize is a swim on Epiphany. That takes place near Charles Bridge. We go out in a boat, dive in in the middle of the river and swim to the shore where at Charles Bridge museum we are given punch or lentil soup to warm up. That’s a lot of fun as well and then of course throughout the winter we have races practically every week until April.”
It may sound like a lot of fun, but in reality there is a lot of hard work, perseverance and pain behind this achievement. People who have built up their resilience to the cold will generally tell you they can’t do without it anymore, never get sick and generally feel much more energized. What they will rarely tell you is the amount of pain which most of them have to overcome from time to time.
“Sometimes the water is so cold that in two minutes your fingers get so swollen that you can’t move them and you no longer feel them – they are spread out like a rake and when you move your hands to swim you can’t make the motion. That sometimes happens when it is snowing into the water. I once saw a young woman –an excellent swimmer who was not so used to the cold - swim for twelve minutes in such conditions and then she was crying with pain on the shore for almost as long. I stayed in for twenty minutes myself and although I didn’t cry, it hurt like hell. Some people had to be helped to walk out of the water and reach their changing rooms –that’s how rough it can get.”
Despite this, or maybe because of it, Polar Bear clubs keep attracting new members. Mostly the ratio of men and women is 4:1. Vladimir Komárek says that while he is not a fan of young children joining, at 14 or 15 one is ready to give it a go and some of the clubs oldest members are in their late 70s. The tradition established 90 years ago is still going strong though Vladimir says that occasionally he himself engages in a bit of publicity to help things along.
“This is not an adrenalin sport or the kind of thing that normally attracts young people but somehow or other they seek us out. Maybe the internet helps –they read about it and can contact us at the click of a mouse. Of course I try to do a little PR myself. A few years ago I created a beach scene at I.P. Pavlova square –lounging on a sun bed with sun glasses and drinking a cocktail in sub-zero temperatures – to get passers-by to stop and take notice. Now I am planning something in Prague 9 - if the weather gets cold enough that is. There’s a shopping mall where they sometimes exhibit ice statues on the roof – so if that happens – I’d like to join them for a while to give the cause a little more publicity and attract new people.”
Most traditions and sporting disciplines evolve with time. The tradition of winter swimming and otužování is no exception. It is becoming ever more competitive. Old-timers like Vladimír Komárek say they don’t like it, but there not much they can do about it.
“In recent years the tradition has been changing – rather than becoming hardy and resilient it is all about winter swimming – how fast you can race and how many others you can beat. Personally, I am not pitting my strength against another human being but against Nature and testing the limits of my abilities. I don’t like the way the tradition is changing but that’s the trend and it’s likely to continue.”