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

Polar Bear Swim: The title sort of speaks for itself. Taking a plunge into the Vancouver icy waters in the middle of winter for a casual swim is a worldwide tradition, launched in Canada in 1920 by 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 Vancouver, Canada.

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.

If the Pantages name sounds like it should be up in lights on the outside of a theatre, 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 at 152 East Hastings Street.

Pete, who was helping out with the family theatre 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.

“The Vancouver Polar Bear Swim Club is one of the largest and oldest Polar Bear Clubs in the world,” touts the City of Vancouver, drawing in about 2,500 participants a year in modern history. 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 honour Peter as part of the Polar Bear Swim.

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.

Source: Vancouver Courier