The crème de la crème of the ice swimming world gathered in Murmansk, Russia for the 2019 International Ice Swimming Association 3rd World Championship and 1st Ice Swimming Arctic Cup this week.
With the water at 0.2°C, the hardened veterans came from 32 countries, ready to demonstrate their skills and talents in the water just ever so slightly above its freezing point.
The well-known luminaries from Petar Stoychev, Christof Wandratsch and Alisa Fatum to the Mäkinen sisters from Finland and the young Polish speeders like Hanna Bakuniak, Aleksandra Bednarek and Michał Perl all showed up and won races.
Swimmers from the established teams from Ireland, Great Britain, Russia and South Africa dominated the age group podium positions as expected.
But there was one late entrant from San Francisco, California who had not only never participated in a winter swimming race, but he also never even seen any ice swimming or winter swimming competitions.
But the 36-year-old newcomer Quinn Fitzgerald proved that the cold is a condition that both scared him – and evidently suits him well.
A former Yale University pool swimmer, Fitzgerald showed up in Murmansk not knowing what he got himself into.
He had to buy new clothes and had never been inside the Arctic Circle, but by the third day of world championships, he was energized, motivated and swimming fast, showing a vast upside of his ice swimming potential.
He finished fifth overall in the 200m freestyle event as his first cold water swim of his life. He recalls his preparations leading up to the 200, “I was terrified before the 200. I thought there was a good chance that I would get out after one lap or simply go unconscious.
But I had confidence in the safety and medical staff to give it a try.
It was the most challenging 200 freestyle of my life. When I stepped down the ladder in the cold abyss, my chest immediately constricted and I wasn’t able to exhale. I started to panic, but found if I breathed every stroke I could survive with shallow breaths. Going in to the last 50, I realized that I was probably going to finish and that was exhilarating for a moment until I realized I was also in a race and I was neck-and-neck with a South African three lanes over.
I managed to find another gear and won my heat. The after race experience was even more bizarre.
It was a cross between feeling like I had been hit by a truck and waking up refreshed from a 3-hour nap. I could not talk or barely walk and definitely could not use my fingers. Someone had to take my goggles and swim cap off. Like an injured player coming off the field, I was supported through the snow to the recovery room. There, Russian women wrapped me in hot blankets until my skin temperature was close enough to normal to go into the hot sauna.”
After Fitzgerald was able to recover and enjoy the other competitors in other events, he was introspective about his performance and the entire rapidly developing niche sport. “Ice swimming is magical, bizarre and pure adventure. It combines my beloved sport of swimming with a truly extreme winter sport.”
Fitzgerald was not planning or preparing for this event like the other competitors. He was a last-minute addition to the event. He attended the event in an administrative capacity for the World Open Water Swimming Association to observe and support the fastest growing part of aquatic sports.
As a personal challenge – a prank really – Ram Barkai, the founder of the International Ice Swimming Association, entered Fitzgerald in the 50m and 200m freestyle events. He put him in outside lanes without any competitive pressures – even though both men knew that Fitzgerald had never swum in water below 10°C (50°F). Fitzgerald is a member of the Dolphin Club and the Olympic Club in San Francisco and has swum in Aquatic Park – but the low end of San Francisco Bay is nowhere near the 0.2°C (32.3°F) water temperature that swimmers faced in Murmansk.
Fitzgerald immediately realized the difference between bay water in California and the lake water within the Arctic Circle. “It is amazing what the cold does to your muscles. Fatigue sets in almost immediately. It also steals your dexterity and it is impossible to keep your normal stroke.”
Fitzgerald faced his first real fight-or-flight response, a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful event, attack, or threat to survival. Entering in 0.2°C water – especially as snow was falling – was certainly a real and immediate threat to his well-being. “Nothing puts you in survival mode like ice water. I could feel the adrenaline surging through my veins and I have never felt more alive.”
After the 200, Fitzgerald was even more ready for the 50m freestyle event on the last day [see race below in lane 8].
He got off to a great start, immediately picked up to sprinting speed, and hit his open turn well. He blasted off the wall with an 8-beat kick and kept up his speed to win the event in 26.94 – the first world swimming title for a Yale University graduate since Don Schollander won four gold medals in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.*
His second event really turned Fitzgerald onto the sport. “I conquered the cold,” he said. “That is a powerful feeling.
Everyone should try it. The mental state that you have to put yourself in to prepare is empowering. I thought swimming in 0.2°C water would be a testosterone-fueled mad rush, but it actually requires relaxed and focused breathing and a centered mental state.
The whole experience verges on the spiritual.
Mix swimming with an extreme winter sport with Olympic-caliber international flare and Russian hospitality and it was one helluva weekend for all.”
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