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The Icelandic Art Of Swim Lessons

May 16, 2023

Iceland is the only place in the world with universal swim literacy. Here's their secret.

When Icelandic filmmaker Jón Karl Helgason hears that there are an estimated 11 million swimming pools in the United States, he nearly spits his hand-rolled cigarette out of the Zoom frame. Put end to end, American swimming pools would make up a river five times the length of the Mississippi; emptied all at once, they’d contain enough water to keep Niagara Falls crashing at full volume for at least two days. But they’re not exactly a national resource — less than 3% of them are open to the public.

In Iceland, it's pretty much the opposite: The swimming pool is first and foremost a communal space. "The swimming pool is your second home," Helgason says. "You are brought up in the swimming pool." There may be only 160, or so, swimming pools in the entire country (which is roughly 305 miles wide by 105 miles long), but every one of them is the essential social hub of a community, large or small.

The swimming pool is a public utility — as critical as the grocery store or the bank. "The British go to the pub, the French go to the cafes — in our culture, you meet in the swimming pool," says Helgason. Swimmers come from all walks of life, from farmers to artists to clergymen to celebrities. "You can have 10, 15, 20, 30 people [in the pool] — they’re talking about politics and about their lives."

Helgason's new film Sundlaugasögur ("Swimming Pool Stories") dives into this unique culture. He spent nearly a decade working on the film, which was nominated for Iceland's premier film award in March. "It took me many years to find the right people [to talk to] — the people who could tell me stories were the older people. They remembered how it was when they were young, and they were learning to swim in the sea or in handmade swimming pools. The oldest one was 104 years old."

Iceland's swimming culture goes back to the Norsemen who settled the island in the 10th century. "When the Vikings came," says Helgason, "they were all able to swim, and then [those skills] died out." Between the late 19th century and the early 20th century, thousands of Icelanders — sailors at sea, fishermen — lost their lives to the sea, tragically drowning, in some cases, within sight of the shore. (One of Helgason's previous films, Swim for Your Life, tells the story of the push to reintroduce those lost skills, complete with reenactments of Vikings practicing the breaststroke in the ice-cold sea.)

Jón Karl Helgason's film Sundlaugasögur ("Swimming Pool Stories") was nominated for Iceland's premier film award in March.

Public concern over the perils of the water built into a national campaign that aimed to achieve universal swimming literacy and culminated in a new law, in 1943, mandating swimming lessons for every child over the age of 7. To this day, all school-age children in Iceland participate in compulsory swimming lessons for one month a year, until the age of 14, when they’re expected to demonstrate swimming literacy, by swimming 600 yards unassisted.

But the compulsory lessons are just one part of a culture-wide elevation of swimming. New parents induct their babies into the swimming pool culture as early as 4 or 5 months, and one of Iceland's most celebrated living heroes is Guðlaugur Friðþórsson, who in 1984 survived six hours in fatally cold water swimming toward a distant lighthouse, after his fishing boat capsized 3 miles offshore. (Thousands in Iceland reenact his 6-kilometer swim each year, in local swimming pools.)

"The swimming pool in my neighborhood was built when I was 6 years old," Helgason recalls. "I was brought up there. My father went swimming every day, and I went with him for 20 years — and I’m still going almost every day to the swimming pool. I took my children there — it was their playground. And my children will take their children — it's the life of swimming pool culture in Iceland."

By the time they’re toddlers, kids are playing independently near their parents in the swimming pool. These days, says Helgason, "the shallow part of the swimming pools are getting bigger and bigger, and they’re really thinking about them as playgrounds. The children can play outside all day in the swimming pool and always feel warm."

No other place is like Iceland — with a population of 372,000 and an abundance of geothermal power, thanks to its dynamic landscape and frequent volcanic eruptions. "In Iceland, I think only 2% to 3% of the swimming pools are warmed with electricity — the rest are with geothermal water," says Helgason. "We are lucky to have that, so we can stay in the swimming pool all year round."

Building sustainable, year-round pools in every community is an ambitious — and worthy — goal, and (one would think) an attainable one, given our prodigious ability, as a nation, to produce swimming pools.

What if Americans got together, with a similar degree of concern about the public health risk that the current barriers to learning to swim present? What if we invited more of the community to use underused private pools? What if the U.S. government incentivized the construction of more public pools to serve especially underserved populations? In short, what if we tried to be a bit more like Iceland?

Julia Holmes