Ice swimming: A chilly Czech holiday tradition gains pandemic popularity

Before watching Czech "otužilci" swim the Vltava on Dec. 26, learn more about this not-for-the-faint-of-heart pastime.

Raymond Johnston

Written by Raymond Johnston
Published on 22.12.2020 15:00 (updated on 22.12.2020)

Swimming in freezing rivers and ponds over the Christmas season has a longstanding tradition throughout Europe. Here in the Czech Republic the century-old custom has gained popularity in recent months with COVID restrictions driving a new generation of Czechs into icy waters in Prague and beyond.

Perhaps the best known local swim is the Alfred Nikodém Memorial which takes place annually on Boxing Day and sees cold-water swimmers known as “hardeners” (otužilci in Czech) plunge into the Vltava.

Winter swimming has also seen a recent boost in popularity thanks to Bohdan Sláma's 2017 film Ice Mother (Bába z ledu), where the sport leads to romance for an older couple.

The coronavirus pandemic has contributed to piqued interest in hardy swimming particularly due to the ongoing closure of public pools, saunas, and sports centers.

The annual Alfred Nikodém Memorial, organized by the oldest and largest otužilec club in the Czech Republic and now in its 74th year, will take place this year with strict hygiene precautions in place. It starts at 11 a.m. on Dec. 26 with swimmers jumping into the Vltava River near the National Theatre in Prague.

Alfred Nikodém was the Czechoslovak athlete (and goldsmith) who popularized winter swimming. He did his first hardening plunge during Christmas 1923. Five years later, he was among some 63 people swam in front of the National Theatre. Nikodém would swim in a military uniform or with his legs in a sack to draw attention to the new sport.

Nikodém's last swim was in Christmas 1945, and he passed away in 1949 at the age of 85. The event in its current form was organized in 1947 by one of his followers.

Last year, some 400 people participated in the Alfred Nikodém Memorial, a number that included swimmers from abroad as the event is well-known internationally.

Not just anyone can join in the swim. Those who aren’t members of the First Prague Swimming Club of Hardeners (I. plavecký klub otužilců Praha) will need a health certificate and must prove their fitness with a recent video of them swimming.

Color footage of the event, with spectators standing on Most Legií bridge and swimmers jumping in from Slovanský ostrov, can be seen in this 1967 British Pathé travelogue. Narration from an Australian point of view says the people of Prague are taking a stand against the “geographical facts of its wintry location.”

Another hardening swim is planned for Žďár nad Sázavou in the Sazava river on Dec. 26 at 1 p.m. This event is in its third year, but it revives a tradition from the 1970s and ’80s when hardening was popular there as well.

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While organized events of winter swimming go back about a century in Prague, they have long been a staple in Eastern Europe and Russia, where Orthodox Christianity is practiced. Swimming takes place on the Epiphany, which is Jan. 19 in Russia and Jan. 6 in countries that follow the Western calendar reform.

In the Orthodox tradition, the Epiphany is the baptism of Jesus. (In the Western tradition, Epiphany is the arrival of the Three Kings.)

In January 2020 in Russia, an estimated 2 million people swam in icy water to commemorate Jesus’ baptism.

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In Bulgaria, Romania and some other parts of Eastern Europe a priest throws a wooden cross into the water and whoever dives in and finds will allegedly get some form of blessing or good luck. The 2019 North Macedonian film God Exists, Her Name Is Petrunya, which won the European Parliament's LUX Prize, shows what happens when a woman finds the cross in a place where only men were allowed to dive.