International Ice Swimming Championship In Russia Attracts 400 Athletes

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Olesja Pu, a Murmansk resident, competes in the 3rd International Ice Swimming Championships (Credit: murmanskiceswimming2019/Facebook)

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.

A team uses chainsaws to cut through the 2-foot layer of ice on the lake (Credit: murmanskiceswimming2019/Facebook)

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.

Bulgarian ice swimmer Peter Stoychev celebrates winning the one kilometer race at the International Ice Swimming Championships (Credit:murmanskiceswimming2019/Facebook)

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.”

Jade Perry, the British women’s record holder for 1km ice swimming (Credit: Jade Perry/Gofundme.com)

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

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484 Comments
  • dragonqueen13
    dragonqueen13Thursday, November 14, 2019 at 11:31 am
    I would try that! I love swimming I've been on a lot of teams, I am also a triathlete, I do triathlons which is were you swim a Lot and then you put shoes and your number on quickly then you get your bike and ride 7miles and then you put your bike down and then you run for miles, and then you get to the Finnish line! It REALLY tiring, but I love it!
    • meatlover24
      meatlover24Tuesday, November 12, 2019 at 5:32 pm
      100meters OMG WOW THAT'S AWESOME AND MORE IMPORTANTLY THEY HAD FUN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
      • penguinpop
        penguinpopTuesday, November 12, 2019 at 5:10 am
        I would not want to do that!!😆
        • wowMonday, November 4, 2019 at 2:35 pm
          How do people swim in such cold water? If I would try that, I would be freezing cold! 400 athletes attracted?! WOW!
          • lolFriday, November 1, 2019 at 1:26 pm
            That is crazy
            • dogoreader10
              dogoreader10Friday, November 1, 2019 at 3:51 am
              how can they swimming in cold
              • omgTuesday, October 29, 2019 at 8:20 am
                omg
                • yeeto111
                  yeeto111Wednesday, October 23, 2019 at 11:17 am
                  wow. just wow.
                  • icecream_heavan
                    icecream_heavanMonday, October 21, 2019 at 11:37 am
                    What? Mind BLOWN!!!! They swim in water under 41 degrees F?! That's crazy!
                    • bmFriday, October 18, 2019 at 7:12 am
                      ohhh, dat would make me COLD. I support you for being brave