When Usain Bolt runs or Michael Phelps swims, it is beauty in action. When classic artists paint or Frank Lloyd Wright designs, it is a masterpiece of creativity.

Similarly, when certain people enter the open water, it is beauty in action and a masterpiece of creativity. We see it being done, but we have a hard time conceiving how it can actually be done. We see certain people swim, we know there are years of training, sacrifice, and commitment behind these efforts.

Swimming across the English Channel butterfly like Sylvain Estadieu does or medaling in 4 races at the FINA World Championships like Thomas Lurz does or swimming 1.7 km in 0°C water like Ram Barkai does is beauty in action and masterpieces of creativity.

How do they train? How do they stay focused? How do they face their doubts? What separates them from others? While their physiological exploits are remarkable, their mindsets are even more so. One look at their bodies and, from the outside, they do not appear any more physically gifted than the next swimmer. In fact, they appear less physically gifted than some other athletes.

Are their hearts bigger? Do they feel less pain? Are their muscles stronger? What makes them tick when our batteries run out? What makes them go on while we can only imagine getting out…or not even starting?

We do not ask them why they do such things. We ask them how. What do they think about when they accomplish remarkable swims in the open water? We asked Ram Barkai what he was thinking during his 1.7 km swim in 0°C water:

There were the four of us: Ryan [Stramrood], Kieron [Palframan], Henri [Kaarma], and me. Henri is the fastest among us: he swam 2.15 km while I did 1.7 km. Ryan and Kieron are very similar speed. Kieron usually faster had a serious stomach bug the day before so he was weak and you could see it at the end.

I am the slowest and a little older; I am 55 years old, Ryan is 40; Kieron is 39, and Henri is a bit younger. I swam the same speed most of the way while they all started fast and slowed down quite a bit.

It was a very tough race. First time we did a mile in 0°C water. Henri comes from frozen Estonia, but we come from sunny beach in Cape Town. It was a surreal swim. We were fine for the first 1000 meters. Our splits for the mile shows that the last 600 meters were almost as fast as the first 1000 meters. The last few length were getting very slow.

The mind was a critical part of this swim because the hands and fit were gone after few minutes. Ryan and I swallowed water at one of the turns. It is very dangerous because aside from not being able to breath for a wee while, you stop for few seconds. Those seconds are critical, because your mind loses focus and I remember feeling like I am sinking. I very quickly regained control and told myself keep on swimming.

Everytime that I felt that I couldn’t swim anymore, I did a speedy automatic systems check: hands, legs, breathing, and mind. I realised that I was fine and just told myself, ‘You are just fine – carry on swimming.’ it worked. At the end, I had to tell myself other things…I was much harsher on myself.

What fascinates me is the time that we spend in the water. It took me around 34 minutes to swim 1700 meters. Most of my ice mile swims are between 30 and 34 minutes depending on conditions. Henri covered 2150 meters at the same time.”

Remarkable.

Barkai believes that others have it in them also be swim in these extremes. “If we get people who can swim 12 minutes for 1 km, that is not a huge amount of time in the water. It is not too risky and will attract the top swimmers. The current ice swimmers are all extreme hard-core endurance swimmers, but not your usual sprinters.”

Imagine that: talking about sprinting at those extreme water temperatures. Now that is a mindset and belief system that helps lay the groundwork for future generations of swimmers.

Copyright © 2013 by World Open Water Swimming Association