British Columbia

99 years cold: Vancouver's polar bear swim more popular than ever

The Park Board says the English Bay Jan. 1 dip is the highlight of the year for many people, while one swimmer keeps coming back for the unique competition that's part of the event.

Organizer says English Bay Jan. 1 dip is highlight of year for many swimmers and spectators

People wait to participate in the Polar Bear Swim in Vancouver, B.C., on Sunday, Jan. 1, 2017. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

The waters in Vancouver's English Bay can be as cold as 3 C on Jan. 1, but that hasn't stopped thousands of people from getting into the water to mark the new year.

On Tuesday, the Vancouver Park Board will host the 99th edition of its Polar Bear Swim.

The first was held in 1920, when around 10 people gathered on English Bay beach and then went for a swim at a time of year when the water is at its coldest.

Now, thousands run down the beach and splash their way into the water to mark the start of another year. Many dress up for the occasion.

A man dressed in a shark costume participates in the Polar Bear Swim at English Bay, in Vancouver, B.C., on Sunday, Jan. 1, 2017. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

In 2014, a record 2,550 people registered to take the plunge. Organizers say far more just come down to watch, up to 20,000.

"It's an event [where] everybody is incredibly happy," said Sean Healy, the supervisor of aquatic services for the Park Board.

"I've never been to an event where I've seen more smiles more high fives and handshakes and hugs than the Polar Bear Swim."

Healy has done the swim each year himself since 1992 and says his technique to get into the water is "methodically wade in and then ... plunge."

Trevor Olson dressed as the Flash at the 2003 edition of Vancouver's polar bear swim. The 46-year-old from Comox has won the 100-yard race portion of the event seven times. (Andy Clark/Reuters)

Others like Trevor Olson don't waste anytime. He runs from the starting corral as fast as possible into the water and powers his way to a buoy 100-yards away.

Not many people know that there was a competitive 100-yard race added to event in 1973 to honour the swim's founder, Peter Pantages.

Olson, 46, has won the event seven times and come second five times, including the past two years.

"I'm still not really sure why I come back. I think it's the competitive nature in me," he said. He said it's always hard to breathe, swimming hard in water that cold.

He travelled from Comox to the race again this year and will try to add to his collection of polar bear trophies.

"Lucky number 13," he said about how many times he's participated.

Participants run into the frigid waters of English Bay during the 96th annual Polar Bear Swim in Vancouver, B.C., on Friday Jan. 1, 2016. Organizers admit the warmer or sunnier it is encourages more people to participate. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

'Creates community'

Meanwhile, Healy says, whether participants are doing the swim to race or just to dunk, its popularity speaks to its simplicity.

"There's no rules. There's no language barrier. There's no special decorum. You're just running into the water, and it's just good clean community fun," he said. "And that's what it does. It creates community."

The 99th Vancouver Park Board Polar Bear Swim starts on Tuesday at 2:30 p.m. PT.  A registration form can be found here.


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