How times have changed.
German marathon swimmer Christof Wandratsch was known at his competitive peak to be one of the world’s best marathon swimmers. But frankly, his reputation in very cold waters was less than it was in warmer waters.
Although Wandratsch swam some of the fastest times in history across the English Channel (7 hours 3 minutes in 2005 and 7 hours 20 minutes in 2003) and was top world-ranked marathon swimmer on the professional circuit in the 1990s, he was not known to be his absolute best in very cold water. “I did not like cold water,” admitted the 50-year-old schoolteacher. “But now I train for it very hard.”
But after intense periodizations of cold acclimatization by his coach Stefan Hetzer, Wandratsch has quickly morphed into the world’s best fastest ice swimmer. He recently cracked the 12-minute mark in the 1000m ice kilometer, setting a new world record in 11:59.97.
But the swimming community is catching up to pioneers like Wandratsch.
Wandratsch will have his hands full at this week’s Aqua Sphere Ice Swimming German Open Burghausen that is doubling as the Ice Swimming Aqua Sphere World Championships. In Burghausen, Wandratsch will battle against former English Channel record holder and 5-time Olympic distance swimmer Petar Stoychev, Rostislav Vitek of the Czech Republic, and Irish newcomers Christopher Bryan and Conor Turner at this week’s Ice Swimming Aqua Sphere Championships.
On the women’s side, there will be an equally exciting match race against the two current world record holders in the 1000m ice swim. Both 27-year-old Sabrina Wiedmer of Switzerland and 37-year-old Julia Wittag have swum a 13:58 in separate venues and will clash on Sunday in the women’s final heat against another newcomer, Victoria Mori of Argentina.
The races are part of an ice swimming competition that is part of the global circuit, a series of ice swimming competitions around the world that adhere to the rules and regulations of the International Ice Swimming Association.
The competition will be fierce in the frigid conditions. Not only are Wandratsch and Stoychev heating up their old rivalry on the marathon swimming circuit and across the English Channel, but Wandratsch has to worry about the young guns like Conor who beat him 12:44 to 13:03 in the 1000m race at the 2016 Ireland Ice Swimming Championships. But the Ice Swimming Aqua Sphere World Championships are held in Wandratsch’s backyard in Bavaria along the German-Austrian border where he has been undergoing a tremendously tough acclimatization training plan under Hetzer.
The 2nd Ice Swimming Aqua Sphere World Championships and the 3rd Ice Swimming Aqua Sphere German Open will be held January 5th through 8th with the expected water temperature to be 2017 and is an extraordinary ice swimming challenge in Burghausen, Bavaria.
In the competition pool at Wöhrsee in Burghausen under the shadows of the world’s longest castle, the competition schedule includes the men’s and women’s 1000m finals on Friday, January 6th followed by the Ice Swimming Aqua Sphere German Open races on January 7th (non-World Cup 1000m freestyle heats, 4 x 25m mixed freestyle relays, 50m breaststroke, 100m freestyle, 4 x 100m mixed freestyle relays, and the SuperFinals that pits together the top 8 swimmers in Saturday’s races) and January 8th (500m freestyle, 50m freestyle, 200m breaststroke, 200m freestyle, and the SuperFinals that pits together the top 8 swimmers in Sunday’s races).
But not everyone in the cold water community thinks the event is reasonable or even responsible.
“[The 1000m races are] way too dangerous for the average person,” commented John Coningham-Rolls, Vice President of the International Winter Swimming Association, to the New York Times. “Even what we do [450m swims] is dangerous enough. So we have to say that we can’t condone this.”
“Coningham-Rolls is correct that that ice swimming is too dangerous for the average person, but these athletes are anything but average,” observed Steven Munatones. “The athletes are responsible for their own training – just like every other extreme sport or marathon endeavor whether it is mountain climbing or swimming the English Channel. From what I have seen, the organizers are as knowledgeable and experienced as they are responsible and safety-conscious.
The sport is certainly not for the average person as some swimmers and administrators may state, but it certainly a niche in the sport of aquatics that is attracting a truly driven and unique individuals who are well-prepared physiologically and psychologically to handle swims up to 1000 meters – and longer – in mind-boggling cold air and water conditions under 5°C (41°F).”
“In the last Ice Swimming World Championships in Murmansk, Russia, we had 45 entrants, 20 of whom were Russian,” explains International Ice Swimming Association founder Ram Barkai. “But we hit the limit here in Burghausen. We have 120 athletes competing in the 1000m race. These include some of the finest marathon swimmers in the world and certainly the best ice swimmers in the world.
If I would have said that we would have had 120 people capable of swimming a fast 1000m ice swim even a few years ago, it would have been impossible to believe. But here we are in Burghausen.”
The sport of ice swimming is becoming more organized, more professional, more global, and much more athletic with a new wave of younger, more experienced and accomplished open water swimmers. The fastest seeds in the 1000m race including the 1000m field who have already done at least a 14-minute ice kilometer are listed below.
“What these athletes are doing is cutting-edge and revolutionary. By all logic and observation, this kind of swimming should not be possible. Considering human physiology as we used to know it, there is no way people should be able to swim under these conditions with the water at or below 2°C (35.6°F) and the air temperature even lower,” said Munatones. “But they are proving that human are totally adaptable beings and can be acclimatized to nearly anything, especially with the mindset that these individuals have.
In any new extreme sports endeavor, the pre-race safety regulations, the in-competition standards, and the rewarming protocols are ever evolving with the sport under the collective efforts of athletes, physicians, scientists and administrators, but these athletes are really pushing the physiological barriers and psychological limits that humans self-imposed on themselves for millennia. These pioneers are dramatically lifting those obstacles and showing others how far, how deeply, how profoundly extreme athletes can really push themselves responsibly and competitively.”
1. Christopher Bryan (Ireland) 11:52
2. Rostislav Vitek (Czech Republic) 12:10
3. Petar Stoychev (Bulgaria) 12:28
3. Conor Turner (Ireland) 12:44
4. Gergi Hesterman (Netherlands) 12:53
4. Christof Wandratsch (Germany) 12:53
6. Benjamin Konschak (Germany) 13:10
7. Jack Boyle (Ireland) 13:20
8. Sabrina Wiedmer (Switzerland) 13:30
9. Petr Šlajs (Czech Republic) 13:52
10. Henri Kaarma (Estonia) 13:53
11. Julia Wittag (Germany) 13:58
12. Tobias Wybierek (Germany) 14:00
13. Raymond Oosterbaan (Netherlands) 14:00
14. Herman van der Westhuizen (South Africa) 14:00
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