Ice swimmers to compete in traditional Boxing Day event

Alfred Nikodém Memorial

The annual Christmas ice swimming competition in the Vltava River, known as the Alfred Nikodém Memorial, is taking place for the 76th time this Monday. Every year several hundred people take part in the event, which honours the founder of the sport in Czechia.

Ice swimming has been popular in Czechia for the last 100 years, with several thousand people participating in clubs around the country.

Vladimír Komárek is chairman of the Czech ice swimming union, which he says has over 120 members, from teenagers to people in their 80s. He himself will be competing in the Alfred Nikodém Memorial for the 50th time – the third person ever to achieve such a record – and has headed the event ten times. He is planning to swim the 300-metre course starting around 11:45 a.m.

Vladimír Komárek | Photo: Archives of Vladimír Komárek

Komárek says he first got interested in ice swimming in the early 1970s after seeing a programme about it on the television, which first piqued his interest, and then was further inspired after seeing a ferrywoman near his family cottage close to the Slapy Reservoir, who he says went swimming in the Vltava twice a day the whole year round. He took up the sport in 1972 and has been hooked ever since.

The self-proclaimed goal of the “otužilci”, as they are known in Czech, is to increase resilience and toughness – to the cold, to temperature fluctuations, and to pain and general unpleasantness. According to Komárek, there are health benefits too.

“You are more resistant to catching colds. Doctors say it has a positive effect on ulcerative diseases, blood pressure, and hypertension, and that it can counteract various anxiety disorders and psychiatric illnesses, so there definitely are health benefits to it.”

Alfred Nikodém  (left) | Photo: Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

Ice swimming was popularised by Alfred Nikodém in the 1920s, who tried to attract people to it with publicity stunts such as swimming in the freezing water with his legs in a potato sack that was tied around his waist, or wearing a military uniform with a rifle on his back.

His final Christmas ice swim in the Vltava was in 1945 and he died four years later. The year after his last dip in icy water, 1946, was reportedly so cold that it wasn’t possible to break the ice in the river to create a swimming channel without it freezing over again instantly, so the first Boxing Day ice swimming competition took place the following year, in 1947.

Komárek says the competition is open to people of practically all ages, except for young children.

“Swimmers from the age of 15 are allowed to compete, and there is no upper age limit. The oldest swimmer I ever knew was 97.”

Alfred Nikodém Memorial | Photo: Czech Television

Ice swimming is not advised unless you have trained for it over a long period of time – the Czech ice swimming union’s website advises you to start in the summer under the supervision of a trainer and slowly build up to colder temperatures.  But you can watch the competition from Slovanský ostrov in the centre of Prague on December 26 from 11:00 a.m.