Swimming in water temperatures of 41 degrees F and below, with air temperatures between 6.8 degrees F to -4 degrees F, wearing just a swimsuit, cap, and goggles, may sound foolhardy to some. But that is precisely what 400 athletes from 33 countries had to endure in the 3rd biennial International Ice Swimming Championships, held in Murmansk, Russia from March 14, 2019 to March 17, 2019.
Organized by the International Ice Swimming Association (IISA), the event was held in a 25-meter, ten-lane swimming pool created by carving out slabs of the 2-foot thick surface layer of ice on Lake Semyonovskaya with chainsaws. Participants spent the first day getting medical examinations and conducting practice swims to get acclimated to the frigid water. The competitions began in earnest on March 15, 2019, with 52 swimmers vying for the coveted final spots for the eight fastest men and eight fastest women. Swimmers also competed in the 200 m freestyle, 100 m breaststroke, 4x50 m freestyle relay, and the 1000 m freestyle dash, which was open only to experienced ice swimmers.
As you may have guessed, the extreme sport is not for the faint of heart. Ice swimming can cause hypothermia, asthma, and afterdrop - continued cooling of a swimmer's core temperature during the initial stages of rewarming, which could damage the heart. Hence, even the most experienced athletes are carefully monitored and medically examined before and after they enter the water. Individual spotters are assigned to each participant to check for any issues as they swim. Each event also has a strict time limit after which competitors who are still in the water are pulled out due to the danger of hypothermia.
Unlike normal swim competitions, participants do not dive in. Instead, they immerse themselves into the water slowly using ladders, allowing the body to get gradually accustomed to the low temperature. Swimmers must also stay horizontal in the water at all times and are forbidden to perform flip turns. That's because, in cold water, the warmer blood moves to the core of the body, protecting the organs from the extreme temperature. A flip turn could cause warm blood to move and endanger the organs.
Upon completing their race, swimmers are quickly ushered to a recovery center, where experts help them warm up by immersing their legs in cool water (hot water would be too drastic a change) and covering their bodies with heated towels. Once their body temperature stabilizes, the swimmers settle down into a sauna or hot tub.
If you’re wondering why swimmers put themselves through this rigorous endurance test, Jonty Warneken, the world's first disabled person to complete an ice mile, has the answer.
“There’s three reasons why a lot of us do this. There’s the physical challenge of actually swimming in water that is below five degrees and swimming distance. The second reason is that we open water swim because we love being out in nature. And the third thing is that the camaraderie amongst the swimmers is fantastic, it’s a great group to be part of.”
For Jade Perry, the British women's record holder for the fastest 1 km ice swim, it's about the euphoria associated with the sport. She says, "It's fantastic when you get in the water - you're just free. You're not worrying about work, or about your house, or anything like that. You're in the water, and you're just thinking about swimming. After you get over the initial gasping and the initial 'wow, this feels cold,' it's actually just wonderful."
Ice swimming is currently just a niche sport, enjoyed by a few brave souls. However, Ram Barkai, a South African open water swimmer and the founder of IISA, is hoping to change that and is trying to convince Chinese officials to include it as a competitive event in the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China. While the ice swimmer even persuaded the decision makers to come to the Murmansk Championships, there is no word yet on if he met with any success.
Resources: murmanskiceswimming.ru, dailynews.openwaterswimming.com, www.bbc.com