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Before the sauna
Before Ritva and Göran Österberg return to the sauna, they take a moment next to each other to look out across the ice covered bay.
Photo credit: Christopher Hunt

Winter bathers

Stockholm is covered in thick layers of snow and ice when we meet up with Göran and Ritva Österberg in Saltsjöbaden.

“It’s like my emotions are given new life.”

Stockholm is covered in thick layers of snow and ice when we meet up with Göran and Ritva Österberg in Saltsjöbaden, a seaside resort in the archipelago that is famous for its public open-air bath that dates back to the early 1900s. 

The cold weather does not stop these soon-to-be 80-year-olds: for over 20 years now the couple have come here once a week to strip off their clothes, heat up in the sauna, and jump in the freezing sea.

For this occasion Göran and Ritva are wearing bathing suits, but normally they prefer a traditional skinny-dip. What is more important are the slippers they wear “without them the heat would disappear from the body,” Göran explains. 

He walks down the jetty, and without hesitation, jumps in. He takes a few breaststrokes and waits for Ritva to follow. They are smiling and splashing water at each other before returning to land. This early January morning the thermometer displays + 1,1 Celsius; in other words very cold, and so Göran agrees.

“It’s as cold for me as for anyone else. But I have a different mindset. Instead of thinking ‘this is nice’ people go ‘brrr this is cold’, even in + 20 degrees,” Göran laughs, and pours up some hot coffee from a thermos along with Ritva’s homemade cardamom buns. She adds: “The cold bath puts me in a great mood and energises me. It is a wonderful experience; a warm, fuzzy sensation spreads from the legs all the way up to the belly. It’s like my emotions are given new life.” 

Still wet from the swim, Göran and Ritva hug each other to share some body heat.

“Oh, you are warm,” he tells Ritva and she replies: 

“That’s what you’re supposed to be in my age. Hot.”

Ice cold January swim
The cold weather does not stop these soon-to-be 80-year-olds, Göran and Ritva Österberg. Photo: Christopher Hunt

It is literally true – the benefits of winter swims are scientifically proven to raise ones feel-good hormones, lower stress and improve sleep (unless you have heart or circulation problems which mean braving icy waters should be avoided). 

The cold water causes the blood vessels to constrict to try to retain body heat and the blood pressure increases to avoid cooling down. In the process to protect the body, hormones such as endorphins, are released and act as a pain relief (as well as as an anti depressant) for a few hours. As a result winter bathers are known to lead more active lives and are generally happier and more fulfilled people. 

Not even a storm would stop Göran and Ritva from swimming; besides the health benefits they have experienced, they also love the comradeships they bring. 

“Everyone is equal here, there is no title on your forehead,” Göran says. 

By the bay
Göran and Ritva Österberg have taken winter swims together for over 20 years in Saltsjöbaden. Photo: Christopher Hunt

Every Sunday they gather with fellow bathers, drink coffee and sit in the sauna to chat about everyday life. Göran has a tradition to bring the boys to a local restaurant twice a year for some crisp bread, herring and schnapps. He proudly shows us his diary he has kept since the start of their winter baths, full of details of the weather conditions, pictures of nude bathers and brief notes to remind of their conversations. 

Before Göran and Ritva return to the sauna to heat up and repeat the ritual, they take a moment next to each other to look out across the beautiful ice covered bay. 

“This is also a great way to enjoy the silence, you relax and have time for your own thoughts,” Ritva ends.