Courtesy of Martha Wood, Tallinn, Estonia.

Martha Wood gave a Tuck Talk at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth reunions in October.

Business school students at Dartmouth University gather to hear stories and advice from fellow students and alumni who studied at Tuck, coming from different paths. Tuck Talks is a series that aims to build new connections and foster a stronger Tuck community.

The former pool swimmer and water polo player talked about her turn to the cold.

Growing up here in Hanover, I enjoyed spending time outdoors year round, doing things like skiing, skating and hiking. But mostly, I was immersed in a life as a competitive swimmer. At Harvard, I spent a lot of time at the pool: playing water polo, joining the swim team, lifeguarding and teaching swim lessons. I continued to swim while working for a bank in New York and at studying at Tuck. During my nine years in Canada I dove deep into the masters swimming world: Training and competing through management consulting engagements and three pregnancies.

When I moved back to the Boston area in 1997, my focus changed, and I ended up taking a 15 year break from swimming.

But then, 4-5 years ago, mid-life hit me hard. I found myself devastated and immobilized by an accumulation of life challenges: The death of both my parents, a contentious divorce, moving, and an empty nest. I knew I needed to rediscover my confidence and find my way in the world, the question was, how? And then, a friend invited me to join him for a swim. Next thing I knew we were swimming workouts together 2-4 mornings a week. It felt so good to be back in my element. As the summer came, I moved my swims outdoors to the ocean.

That summer, my sister convinced me to join her in a 1.7 mile fundraising race across Narragansett Bay. I was taken aback and pleased to find I placed in the top 15 out of hundreds of swimmers. Inspired, I continued to compete in open water races over the course of the summer and heard about an open water swim group called the Nahant Knuckleheads. I was astonished to hear they swam year round and liked the idea of finding a group to swim outdoors with, especially one with such a fantastic name. I daydreamed about earning the right to wear a swim parka with Nahant Knuckleheads emblazoned on the back.

As my confidence rebounded, I joined Match.com with the user name Ocean Swimmer. You can only imagine my amusement when I received a message from – Aquaman! Our first outing was a late September swim in the Atlantic Ocean. I wore a wetsuit, while he swam skins (no wetsuit). As we continued to swim through the fall, he explained to me how people swim through the cold New England winters, even without wetsuits. He taught me to wear earplugs, get in the water right away and swim hard to make heat, and watch out for the claw (numb hands). I learned to put on a wool hat, get out of my wet suit and have a cup of hot tea right away after getting out of the water. Despite, or perhaps because of the cold, I always felt great after these swims.

That fall, I took a six-week meditation class. I brought the concept of moving meditation to my swimming and found that I was developing a state of hyper-focus that helped me appreciate the beauty of the clear cool water, and get me through the pain and discomfort of the increasingly cold swims.

I learned more and gained inspiration about ice swimming by reading my new idol Lynne Cox’s book Swimming to Antarctica. By now it was late October, and I was swimming in 45-55°F water with my wetsuit for a mile or so at a time.

At this time, I had my first routine colonoscopy. During the procedure, unbeknownst to me or my surgeon, my colon was perforated. Five days later, severe infection had set in. I woke up in the middle of the night with piercing stomach pain, shaking from fever, and drove myself to the emergency room. In the waiting room, I read Swimming to Antarctica, and wore a knit wool hat to help alleviate the shivering, though now it was from a fever, not a cold swim. In what turned out to be a three-week hospital stay, eventually requiring major surgery, a blood transfusion, and time in the ICU, there were a few instances when my sister, a physician, thought they might lose me. Several people noted that my being in such good shape from swimming might have helped save my life. My meditation practice also helped me get through the stress and excruciating pain.

When discharged from the hospital I had lost all muscle mass and dropped 15 pounds. I could barely walk and do daily tasks, but, a day after getting home, I was allowed to return to the pool. My stroke was guarded, and flip turns were out of the question with staples running down five inches of my belly. But, despite the pain, I kept at it – for when I left the hospital, I had a resolution to make the most of the time I have on earth: To connect in a meaningful way with the world and people around me – to be bold, live fearlessly and find joy.

Within a month I was back in the ocean at a New Year’s Day polar plunge. I soon tracked down the Nahant Knuckleheads and started joining them swimming out of the famous L Street Brownies’ bath house in South Boston. I was the only one who wore wetsuit – to bear the cold, but also to hide my (thankfully temporary) colostomy bag. I felt exhilarated after the swims, and discovered that having a post-swim beer with fellow swimmers is about the best damn thing. I didn’t tell my doctor that I had been swimming outside, for fear that he wouldn’t let me do it.

Over the years, I’ve expanded my experience with ice swimming. I am now a proud skins swimmer – I haven’t worn a wet suit for three years. Jumping into open water at home, or wherever my travels take me – whether Bhutan, the Rocky Mountains of Colorado or Boston Harbor – brings me a fuller, more meaningful connection to place. One of my favorite places to swim is the Memphremagog Winter Swimming Festival, held annually in a pool chain-sawed out of an icy lake in Newport, Vermont.

I have come to think of my swimming as a portal to an alternative universe: Just as Harry Potter walked through platform 9¾ to enter the magical world of Hogwarts, I can put on my suit, cap, and goggles, wade into an icy ocean, and enter an aquatic universe where I am magically hyper-focused, in control, confident and strong. It’s my own special place – very few know of this alternative universe, the limits I push, and the mastery I pursue there.

Last December, I entered the water for my weekly swim along Singing Beach. Estimating the temperature on my ankles at about 40°F, I set a goal of swimming to the far end of the beach and back. Fully immersed, I reacted to the pain of the cold on my forehead by propelling my arms faster to make heat. Kicking hard, I settled into a quick pace. Sunlight shone through the clear water as I spotted a crab scuttling along the sandy bottom. Turning my head with each breath, I took in the vivid blue sky and wispy clouds surrounding me. My face now felt fine, but as I made fists with my hands, I observed they were starting to feel numb. I swam on, knowing this was normal – my body was working to keep my core warm by cutting off blood flow to my extremities. Getting into a flow, after about 12 minutes I reached my goal and considered swimming further. My hands were fine, and I didn’t feel disoriented or dizzy as I tend to when hypothermia sets in. The sun dappled rocks at the other end of the beach beckoned and I dug in with brute determination. I felt invincible, and a revelatory thought popped into my head: I am an extreme athlete. Previously, I had only chuckled at the absurdity of the sport, and appreciated the camaraderie and exhilaration I felt after ice swims. Now, I realized I had developed a bold statement of who I am and who I want to be: a bit eccentric and silly, but also strong, confident and ready to face anything with equanimity.

At the time of this revelation, I signed up to attend the 2018 World Winter Swimming Championships in Estonia. At an ice swimming competition, there are no wetsuits. Safety monitors walk the deck, ready to help pull a struggling swimmer from the pool. There is no diving or flip turns as you can lose consciousness if you enter the water too quickly. Right before a race, you walk out in your parka and sweats. The first command from the referee is Take off your clothes, the second Get in the water. Then comes the starter horn, and the race is on. In Estonia, as you walk from the pool a volunteer hands you a hot cup of tea, and you head to one of the hot tubs or the huge sauna tent to warm up and commune with fellow swimmers. The cultural experience of exploring Estonia and socializing with 1,500 other ice swimmers from all over the world was extraordinary.

I came to Estonia knowing that I would be competitive with other swimmers, but, the results were beyond my wildest dreams. By the end, I was the world champion in 4 events, placing second and third in 2 others. I was the high point winner for my age category of women. I had found my place.

I relish this alternative universe. It is a small, obscure world, but it presents me with an environment where I am able to challenge my limits and wield superpowers: The ability to survive in 30°F water; and the confidence, strength, and sense of control that is often illusive for me on land. Slowly, but surely, I am bridging my two worlds. With each swim, the superpowers I possess in the icy water become more ingrained in my being. Gradually, I am learning to bring the fearlessness, strength and joie de vie that I find in the water onto land. I’m still working on it, but it gave me the courage to speak today. Thank you.

Photos from Vermont are courtesy of Coney Island Polar Bear Robbie Bailey.

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