The Polar Bear Swim, a tradition launched by a Greek immigrant 104 years ago, returned to Vancouver, Canada on New Year’s Day.
On Sunday, thousands took a plunge into the icy waters of the English Bay for a casual swim that has become a worldwide tradition first launched in Canada in 1920 by Greek immigrant Peter (Pete) Pantages.
Pantages, who owned the Peter Pan Cafe on Granville Street, died in 1971, but the event he started has endured through the years — only being interrupted by the pandemic.
Last year Lisa Pantages, whose grandfather, Peter, helped launch the event more than a century ago said:
“I think it speaks to the amazing enthusiasm of Vancouver to celebrate where they live,” she said when asked about the large turnout. “I think it speaks to us needing to be together and wanting to be together,” she told CBC News.
“I first got my toes dipped in maybe up to my knees when I was about three months old,” said Pantages, who is the president of the Polar Bear Swim Club. “And I have done it every year of my life.”
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 on New Year’s Day. Hence, 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 so 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, which still exists to this day. Members of the club 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 a hundred 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.