• Musings:
  • April 10, 2014

Freeze-Frame: Taking a Dip in Denmark’s Icy Waters

Becky Harlan

This post was originally published in April 2014. We’re resurfacing it as part of our #ThrowbackThursday effort to give some love to our favorite posts.—The Proof Team

Most of us long for spring to settle in—to stop its flirtation and thaw the ground, green the trees, and lengthen the days. This is not the case for eight-year-old Lily Sølvig Wedel Krambeck, a member of Amager Strand Sejlinstitution’s Polar Bear Ice Swimmer Club in Copenhagen, Denmark. “I don’t look forward to spring because then the ice swimmer season is over,” she says.

Picture of girl wearing blue swimsuit with ice in her hair
“I don’t look forward to spring because then the ice swimmer season is over.”
Lily Sølvig Wedel Krambeck, 8

When photographer Daniel Hjorth, a student at the Danish School of Journalism and an intern at Danish newspaper Politiken, was assigned the task of illustrating a particularly cold and clingy winter, he came across a team of thick-skinned youth who were not only surviving the frigid season but immersing themselves in its most intense manifestation.

“Ice swimming is a pretty common thing here,” Hjorth explains. “Denmark is a small country with many islands, and the sea is never more than few hours away. Summertime and high temperatures only last a few months, so if you want to enjoy the water you have to get used to the cold.”

Picture of boy with wet hair, wrapped in a red towel.
“People say that ice swimming gives you a better immune system.”
Carl Ryskov Aagesen, 12

“Some kids stay in the water for only a moment; none of the children remain for much longer than 15 seconds. In the really cold winter months, most children only do one dip. After the swim they would find their towels and get inside for a hot shower and maybe a cup of tea, but no hot chocolate–the teacher believed that the kids should learn that they didn’t need a reward for ice swimming, that the swimming was the reward itself.”—Daniel Hjorth

Rather than document the entire process of the ice swim, Hjorth realized that the most descriptive representation of the experience could be captured by isolating the frozen faces of the children after they emerged from the icy waters. “I thought that the whole story of these kids could be told in just the expression on their faces, and that you did not need to see the ice and snow to understand what a cold experience these brave children were going through.”

Picture of boy with purple towel wrapped around him.
“I look forward to getting my first ice swimmer diploma.”
Viggo Plehn Prehn, 9

Hjorth set up a white backdrop on a jetty by the water. After the children finished their swim, ice crystals still in their hair, he made their portraits. “The children were wet and cold and wanted to go inside for a hot shower, but I had to insist on getting at least 20 shots of every child. I think they hated me at that particular moment. But afterwards, when we went back inside and I showed them the pictures, they were happy and we could laugh about the whole situation.”

Picture of girl in purple swimsuit with wet hair
“My dad said that I will get a present if I finish the season.”
Dicte Havelykke Thomasen, 7

So what motivates these kids to consistently plunge into uncomfortably cold waters? “Some said it was a question of friendship, challenge, and unity. Others mentioned health benefits for the immune system, blood flow, and such.” This is not enough of a motivation for everyone, though. When the young ice swimmers began their season in September their team had a hearty 23 members. Once the water reached minus 2 degrees, however, only 12 swimmers remained. For those who carry on, there is a reward. “When the children have finished the season, the club throws a big party where all their parents come and they get a diploma for their courage and perseverance.”

Picture of boy with wet hair and rosy cheeks clasping his hands together.
“When I hit the water surface, it feels like my whole body pulls together.”
Jonathan Ryskov Aagesen, 9

For Hjorth, a party might not be enough of an incentive. “To be honest, I hate cold water. I have been swimming in the fall and in the wintertime, but never as these kids do with ice on the top and everything.”

Images from Daniel Hjorth’s project, Ice Swimmer Kids, were recognized in the 68th annual College Photographer of the Year competition, placing gold in the Interpretive Eye category and silver in the Interpretive Project category. See more of Hjorth’s work on his website.

Follow Becky Harlan on Twitter and Instagram.

There are 18 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. roberto chavez
    July 24, 2015

    lindo trabajo

  2. Ron
    July 23, 2015

    Beautiful portraits of such brave souls. I started shivering just reading the text.

  3. tumul
    January 15, 2015


  4. Charlene Maginn
    July 13, 2014

    I loved this photo project! It reminded me of my own youth … though my swimming took place from May-October in Canada. The May water would still be around 0 degrees since the ice had just finished melting. Often I had a “head freeze” headache which did NOT feel good at all … but there was something exhilarating about swimming in cold water. We would try everyday to stay in longer and longer. My feet would go completely numb and would be burning – but once past that – we could do it! There were many of my family and friends who did a Polar Bear dip every New Year’s eve (not me!!!). They looked and I am sure felt a lot like these kids … but only did it that one night. So amazed at the strength and commitment of these kids. Great expose

  5. Catherine
    July 4, 2014

    This story really summed up perseverance. Reminds me of the ice-tub challenge at 4H camps, in colder extremes as a Sport. Try to do that in America without being called crazy. I believe the teachings of “No matter how much you don’t want to do something, you might like it.” are great morals to attribute.

  6. Al
    April 27, 2014

    I love the pictures, “pictures tell a million words” and they sure do in this instance.

  7. Youri
    April 19, 2014

    Nice live story. So profound for some so real for others.

  8. Bergson
    April 17, 2014

    the last young man’s comment is very deep. i wish i had his maturity. excellent pictures, fantastic story, interesting young people

  9. Annemarie
    April 14, 2014

    Incredible story. Stunning pictures. We can learn a lot from these kids about perseverance and doing the ‘hard thing.’ All too often, we quit when things get even slightly uncomfortable… Great work, Becky & Daniel!

  10. Walter Sotillo
    April 13, 2014

    Esos niños avanzan y se sumergen en un medio muy hostil, demasiado incómodo y maltratador. Aprenden y practican la osadía, la valentía de enfrentar situaciones atemorizantes, difíciles. Se trata de derrotar al propio miedo. Entrenan la “Fuerza de Voluntad”. Recuerdo haber leído de niño que el adolescente pielroja se enfrenta a los climas extremos porque “tiene que dominar a su cuerpo como a un caballo”.

  11. Elgina Thomsen
    April 11, 2014

    I have mixed feelings about what ice bathing for children. I am nevertheless proud of my little neighbour Lily Sølvig!

  12. Tayyab
    April 11, 2014

    i am amazed at the beauty & diversity of human culture and civilization, its habits and habitats… But this also amazes me that now this is a self-eater global civilisation bent on killing itself… unfortunately…

  13. george
    April 11, 2014

    this kids are so cool literally cool. i salute them!

  14. rafoul
    April 11, 2014

    i lovet this so pitfol.

  15. John Carlson
    April 11, 2014

    very nice photos, i certainly love this website, keep on it

  16. James
    April 11, 2014

    Makes you wonder what is normal for the human body. The species certainly survived the last ice age, albeit without the iPad.

  17. littledarling
    April 10, 2014

    Inevitably, I can’t do what those children did, because I don’t know how to swim. By the way, I’m 25 years old. So shame! ^.^

  18. Donna
    April 10, 2014

    Amazing story! So glad to know about these tough kids and their parents.

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