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Greek Immigrant Launched Vancouver’s Polar Bear Swim One Century Ago

CVA 99-1783 – Miss E. Robinson and Pete Pantages, Royal Lifesaving Society members pose at snowy beach, 15 Dec 1927. Stuart Thomson photo.

January 1, 2020 will mark a century since the very first ”Polar Bear Swim” took place in Vancouver, Canada, and organizers are promising ”the largest event ever” for this special commemoration.

But what exactly is this Polar Bear Swim, and how in the world did this event even get started?

Well, the title pretty much speaks for itself. It basically is comprised of plunging into the  freezing waters of the Pacific Ocean outside Vancouver, British Columbia in the middle of winter!

What is now a worldwide tradition where thousands of people go for an icy dip on New Year’s Day, usually for charity, all started in Canada in 1920 courtesy of Greek immigrant Peter (Pete) Pantages.

Although the tradition dates back to the first years of the 20th century, it was Pantages and his group of winter swimmers back in 1920 who first practiced it in the Canadian city of Vancouver.

The 2020 centennial Polar Bear Swim event will begin at noon on New Year’s Day and will last until 4 p.m. local time.

According to the organizers, it will feature a variety of live musical entertainment and other performances and people will be able to find food and beverages as well — surely hot ones, which will be much-needed for those who take the plunge.

At 2:30 p.m., the brave swimmers will enter the Pacific Ocean and …”enjoy” the refreshing delights of the freezing waters of English Bay.

Back in the early 20th century, Pantages had a strong conviction that people would go for a swim, as he did, in English Bay every day of the year — including New Year’s Day.

This was the impetus behind his launching of Vancouver’s nearly century-old Polar Bear Swim.

Pantages was a Greek who, like most other Greek people, knew how to enjoy and make the most out of life.

A well-known local entrepreneur who had a popular restaurant of his own, he also possessed enough natural charm to persuade some of his friends to plunge into the icy Vancouver waters.

According to a statement released by the City of Vancouver, “The Vancouver Polar Bear Swim Club is one of the largest and oldest Polar Bear Clubs in the world,” and it draws about 2,500 participants each and every year.

The event is thought to have been the first of its kind in Canada, and it continues to be a major event on New Year’s Day, when most people are off work and able to take part in outdoor activities.

One hundred years after the very first event, many members of the Pantages family, including Lisa Pantages, Peter’s granddaughter, will participate in the Polar Bear Swim. For Lisa, this will be the fifty-eighth time she has taken part in this bone-chilling event to mark the New Year.

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