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Polar Bear Swim: Century-old Tradition Launched by Greek Immigrant

poler bear swim peter pantages
The Polar Bear Swim club in Vancouver. Peter Pantages is standing in the water at the far left of the photograph. Credit: Vancouver City Archives/ Public Domain

The Polar Bear Swim — the title speaks for itself. Taking a plunge into icy waters in the middle of winter for a casual swim has become a worldwide tradition, but it was first launched in Canada in 1920 by Greek immigrant Peter (Pete) Pantages.

Although the tradition dates back to the first years of the 20th century, with individual swimmers partaking in the frigid swim, it was Pantages and his group of winter swimmers back in 1920 who first made it an official group activity when they practiced it in Vancouver, Canada.

Peter Pantages: Greek immigrant founder of Polar Bear Swim

Pantages had a strong conviction that people could go for a swim like him in English Bay every day of the year — including New Year’s Day. So he launched Vancouver’s nearly century-old Polar Bear Swim.

Peter (Pete) Pantages was a Greek immigrant with showbiz in his family tree, a popular restaurant of his own, and the charm to have talked some buddies into plunging into the frigid Vancouver waters along with him.

If the Pantages name sounds like it should be up in lights on the outside of a theater, well, that’s what it was (and remains, in many North American cities). Pete’s uncle Pericles Pantages — who preferred to call himself Alexander, after Alexander the Great — ran Vancouver’s Pantages Theatre, which was located at 152 East Hastings Street.

Pete, who was helping out with the family theater business in Vancouver when he first moved to town, reportedly liked to swim up to three times a day in English Bay, according to writer and historian Eve Lazarus.

His passion for swimming was so great that in 1920 he founded the famous Vancouver Polar Bear Club, that still exists to this day, whose members dash into the frigid waters of English Bay every New Year’s Day. The first event drew five hardy souls. Today, more than eight decades later, thousands congregate to watch the braver among them leap into the chilly bay.

The Vancouver Polar Bear Swim Club

“The Vancouver Polar Bear Swim Club is one of the largest and oldest Polar Bear Clubs in the world,” touts the City of Vancouver, and it draws in about 2,500 participants a year. The event is thought to be the first of its kind in Canada.

Pantages died in 1971, and his son continued to run his restaurant for a few more years until it closed down. In 1972, an annual swim of 100 yards was established to honor Peter as part of the Polar Bear Swim.

In 1986, Vancouver made the Polar Bear Swim the first event of the Centennial year, with a special certificate designed and signed by the Mayor of Vancouver and the President of the Polar Bear Club.

Various members of the Pantages family, including Pete’s children and grandchildren, have continued to participate in the annual chilly plunge. On January 1, 2016, Pantages’ granddaughter Lisa took part in the swim wearing her grandfather’s wool swim suit.

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