Words by Ragnar Tómas Hallgrímsson
Photography by Golli
Every weekday morning at the public pool in West Reykjavík (Vesturbæjarlaug), Halldór Bergmann – called Dóri – slips into his grey, square leg suit and declares that he shall swim 1,800 metres (1.1 miles). He is 68 years old, and, also, a great mangler of the truth. He swims only 200 metres (660 feet), on a good day, but does not like the facts getting in the way of a good time – and this may be his best quality: his penchant for childlike embellishment. It’s this trait, above any else, perhaps, that has won over a troop of loyal followers, and why those followers have, in the spirit of his own whimsy, taken to calling him “the Commander.”
He is not a large man, not by Icelandic standards, but there is something undeniably grand about him as he rises from the waters after his swim – chin up, chest out, goggles on his head; bronze skin glistening in the pale morning sun. Digging his toes into his flip-flops, he struts toward the glass yurt that houses the pool’s steam room. Three of his contemporaries (roughly speaking), crouching at the shallow end of the pool – heads bobbing languidly, up and down, up and down – follow him with their eyes.
Steaming a while in the yurt, the Commander confabulates about politics, current events, and sports with his fellow patrons, while remaining, seemingly always, at the centre of attention. When the heat becomes unbearable, he marches back out again, relishing the contrast between the mugginess of the steam room and the cool summer air.
But all of this – the swim, the steam, the shooting of the proverbial breeze – is mere preamble for the marrow of his daily ritual; for almost four decades, he has rallied them here, his troops, at the edges of the public pool – come rain, wind, or snow* – and guided them through a tightly-scripted regimen of quaint exercises invented by, and bearing the name of, Danish gymnastics educator J. P. Müller.
Müller’s book My System – which outlined his personal philosophy on health and wellness, and included 18 exercises – was a bestseller when it was published in 1904. Promising to transform the figure of the common weakling into that of a Greek god, Müller converted the likes of Franz Kafka to his system, whose physique was once described by an Austrian physician as “thin and delicate.”
Müller was born with a similarly frail constitution, but owing to strenuous exercise, and with the aid of his system (which he developed to keep his comrades at the Copenhagen Rowing Club fit during the off-season), he would later be described by the Danish painter Carl Bloch as “physically the most perfect man” he had ever seen. Decades ahead of his time, Müller warned his contemporaries against a sedentary lifestyle: against smoking, drinking, and indigestible food (writing that nature avenges herself “with mathematical certainty”). Müller’s prescience may explain why his legacy lives on in West Reykjavík (although the Commander has never read his book).
It’s a daily spectacle that always begins the same way, with a rallying cry that all of the patrons of West Reykjavík’s pool are now long familiar with: “The exercises are beginning!” Meant to be taken as an amiable invitation (everyone is allowed to participate), but bellowed, as it is, in the Commander’s deep, resonant voice, with backing vocals from his adjutant, Ragna (68), it sounds more like a directive.
This rallying cry sends the Commander’s troop – Skuggi (71), Hrönn (73) Björn (68), and Margrét (75), among others – scuttling, half-naked, from the hot tubs and pools to the far corner of the facilities, where they line up, in loose formation, in front of their leader.
They’re not the most vigorous of units, but what they lack in youth, mobility, and grace they more than make up for in spirit; there is singing, there is laughter, there is semi-impromptu poetry (a few members take turns composing topical quatrains, which they then sing).
The exercises include “the Helsinki” (invented by the Commander), where the Müllerist swings both hands upward and then downward, as if wielding a pair of ski poles; “the Archer” (a classic from the Müller canon), where the practitioner pretends to fire a bow, while the Commander cautions, “don’t shoot the priest!” (a reference to rev. Ólafur Jóhannesson, who distributes coffee in plastic cups to the Müllerists at the conclusion of their exercises); along with several trunk-twisting calisthenics that are executed with various degrees of gracefulness.
It all began as an accident, with an accident.
In 1982, perched upon scaffolding ten feet above the ground, the Commander felt the platform beneath his feet collapse, sending him plummeting, knee-first, into a flat rock (he had worked in construction for most of his life). During rehabilitation, doctor Stefán Hallgrímsson taught him Müller’s system in order to improve the mobility of his knee. Almost immediately, the Commander became so enamoured with these exercises that he brought them to the public pool in West Reykjavík, where he has made a daily ritual of their performance ever since.
There are over 100 public pools in Iceland, scattered about the city and around the country’s habitable rim. Having one within walking distance of one’s home is a kind of civil right, some have argued, but to the Commander, who cruises past at least seven of them every morning in order to visit his pool (he lives in Mosfellsbær), they are also a luxury and a privilege.
This article is an excerpt. Read the full article in the latest issue of Iceland Review Magazine. Subscribe here to get the magazine delivered to your door.
Iceland Review is the longest-running English-language magazine presenting Iceland’s community, culture, and nature – since 1963.