British Columbia

Polar bear race: How (and why) to swim 100 yards fast in cold water

Vancouver's Polar Bear Swim is the country's oldest New Year's Day icy dip, but for some, like Trevor Olson, the event isn't just about getting in and out in a hurry, it's about winning.

Vancouver Polar Bear Swim champion Trevor Olson shares his tips for getting to the orange buoy first

Trevor Olson, 44, dressed as the Flash in 2003. He has won the 100-yard race portion of Vancouver's Polar Bear Swim 7 times. (Andy Clark/Reuters)

Vancouver's Polar Bear Swim is the country's oldest New Year's Day dip, but for some, like Trevor Olson, the event isn't just about getting in and out in a hurry, it's about winning.

The Peter Pantages memorial trophy, which was created in 1973, after Pantages died. He founded the Vancouver Polar Bear Swim in 1920. (Annelies Bertrand)

Although the swim is more than nine decades old, in 1973 a competitive 100-yard race was added to honour the Polar Bear Swim's founder, Peter Pantages.

"After the first five seconds, that cold hits your chest and you just can't breath and all of a sudden you're like what am I doing? I can't do this," said Trevor Olson, 44.

Those words may not sound like they come from someone who has been the winningest swimmer in the race in the 21st century, yet Olson has won seven times and come second three times.

"There are lots of people that can beat me. The nice thing about most swimmers … most swimmers don't want to get into that water," he said.

Participants from Vancouver's Polar Bear Swim pose for a photograph with the English Bay pier in the background, which swimmers used to have to go around for the event, a distance of about 100 yards. (City of Vancouver Archives)

Since 1992, there have been a number of years when the water has been 9 C — the warmest — while in 1982 and 1985 the water was only 3 C.

His first three years at the race, Olson wore a Flash superhero costume, but retired it after his first loss, because it slowed him down, and he realized how cold it made him standing around in it afterward.

"That first year was a big learning experience, from the cold standing on the sand and waiting for the signal to go," he said.

Here are the champion's tips for swimming 100 yards in cold water — fast.

1. Wear flip-flops at the start line.

Olson learned that standing around in the race corral up to 15 minutes before the horn sounds can be very cold on the feet. So now he wears an inexpensive pair of flip-flops, which he simply runs out of when the race starts.

Trevor Olson, far left, scans the start line at the 2009 Vancouver Polar Bear Swim while wearing flip-flops, which he says are essential to keeping his feet warm while waiting for the start. (The Canadian Press)

"You have to be careful with that too, though, because I've almost tripped and sent myself flying because of my need to keep my feet warm," he said of the 25-metre run down to the water.

Olson also wears two swim caps and ear plugs in an effort to keep his head as warm as possible to avoid "getting ice-cream headache."

2. Be ready to go at any moment.

Race organizers put participants into the starting corral up to 15 minutes before 2:30 p.m. PT, when the event is supposed to start. But getting everyone to stay there until the horn sounds is more often a failure than a success.

Getting participants to stay behind the starting tape is hard to do at Vancouver's annual Polar Bear Swim. (Andy Clark/REUTERS)

"[The countdown] rarely gets down to zero. Once one person goes, everybody goes, it's not like you can restart the race," said Olson, who constantly scans the line left and right watching for someone to jump.

3. Don't ask Trevor Olson for tips at the race.

"Don't talk to me because I'll tell you the rules are different," said Olson with a laugh.

He says one year, a swimmer who he deemed to be a contender asked him about getting to the buoy, so Olson told him that the race was actually to the buoy and back, which worked to demoralize the swimmer, who eventually gave up.

Vancouver Polar Bear Swim champion shares tips

5 years ago
Duration 1:13
Trevor Olson has won the New Year's Day event seven times, but don't let him psych you out. 1:13

4. Don't swamp the lifeguard boat.

A Park Board lifeguard sits in a rowboat at the orange buoy to watch the winners of the race, who must then tell him or her their names so they can be recorded.

'Don't hang onto the boat, because everyone wants to hang onto the boat and it's a little scary for the lifeguard taking names,' said Glenn Schultz, who is the Park Board's supervisor for beaches and pools and has been involved with the race since the 1960s. (Andy Clark/REUTERS)

Many people try to grab onto the boat to take a rest, which delays the lifeguard writing down the names of the winners, meaning swimmers ultimately have to stay in the water longer than they want to.

5. Remember — you have to swim back to shore from the buoy.

While it is true the race is only to the orange buoy, swimmers do have to get back to the shore themselves.

Olson used to go freestyle back, but now opts for breaststroke, which is slower, but keeps his head out of the water.

He figures doing the race, waiting to get his name recorded and then swimming back keeps him in the water for up to five minutes.

More than 2,000 people do Vancouver's Polar Bear Swim each year, but very few, are there to compete in the 100-yard race portion of the event. (REUTERS/Andy Clark)

For the past two years, a young water polo player named Gareth Jones has won the men's race, so Olson may be in for tough competition as he returns this year for the first time since 2014.

He says his nerves keep him hooked on the event: he loves feeling the jitters at the start due to the excitement in the crowd and trying to win such a unique swimming challenge.

Top finishers in Vancouver's Polar Bear Swim are awarded trophies. In the 1960s, the winner often received a tonne of coal. 'Nowadays kids probably wouldn't even know what coal is, but it was a big prize in those days,' said Park Board supervisor Glenn Schultz. (Trevor Olson)

"Be aware how tired you are going to feel when you get in the water. It is going to zap you like you've never felt before, even if you are a great swimmer." That's Olson's final advice, although it could be just a bit more psychological warfare.

The 97th Vancouver Polar Bear Swim goes on Sunday, Jan. 1st at 2:30 p.m. PT. Registration at English Bay begins at 12:30 p.m. PT.


Chad Pawson is a CBC News reporter in Vancouver. You can contact him at