Temperatures close to zero have got most of us muffled up in scarves and woolly hats, but for the Spartan-living members of the Czech Polar Bears Club it’s a breeze and they work hard to convince others about the benefits of taking cold showers and enjoying a December dip in the Vltava River. Last weekend they engaged in a colorful ceremony of “christening” new members.
A crowd of onlookers, largely made up of enthusiastic family supporters and half-frozen journalists, stood on the bank of the Vltava River at mid-day on Sunday waiting for the ceremony that was to make ten newcomers to the Club of Hardy Men and Women fully-fledged members.
The initiation ceremony or the “christening” as it is called involved the newcomer being doused with a jug of ice-cold water from the Vltava River with ice-cubes added for good measure. The old-timer pouring says “break a leg” and the newcomer answers “may the devil take you!” Even for those you have switched to cold showers the initiation ceremony comes as a shock.
Right after the ordeal, the newcomers dive into the icy-cold water of the Vltava for a brief swim. I stop two young men in their twenties as they wade out to ask how they are feeling.
“Refreshing, its really refreshing. We are total newcomers to this –we’ve only been preparing for a few weeks. First cold showers and gradually dips in the river. First you can only stand it for three or four minutes, at the most, but gradually you get used to it –and it is surprisingly addictive. We saw the christening ceremony last year and were hooked.”
All ten newcomers survived the “christening” and the twenty or so old-timers repeated the ceremony they underwent years ago just for the fun of it. Many were dressed in period swimsuits, funny costumes and sported funny hats or antlers. The head of the club Vladimir Komárek explained this was only for show, to attract more newcomers, journalists and onlookers.
“We have about ten newcomers this year which is quite a lot and they have various reasons for coming – some really want to practice this Spartan way of life to improve their health, others fancy the idea of getting attention and being on TV and some of the younger boys do it to show off in front of their friends and girlfriends. But there are many more who shy away from publicity and simply enjoy the benefits of a hardy lifestyle and the feeling that they can do something rather extraordinary.”
“I started training in the summer of 1972 and in the winter of that year I was swimming for twenty minutes in the ice-cold Vltava River. You start with cold showers twice a day and swimming in the Vltava twice a week in all kinds of weather. If you stick to it there should be no problem since the water gradually gets colder and your body gets used to it as time passes.”
Still the process is not as easy as this hardy-man makes it sound. Komárek says it takes about two years to establish a strong commitment. Some people give up after one season, but after two years they are generally hooked.