Instead of concrete around a pool or a tropical coastline along an open water course, hardened extreme swimmers are encased in the white outlines of a frozen lake, the frigid boundaries of a river bank or the iced seashore of an ocean.
One of the global catalysts of this growth is South African Ram Barkai who founded the International Ice Swimming Association in 2009 with his swimming partners Andrew Chin, Ryan Stramrood, Kieron Palframan, and Toks Viviers. With specific rules and an acknowledged governing body, new ice swimmers have been challenging themselves around the world in oceans, lakes, bays and rivers. With the growth, the Guinness Book of World Records is considering to introduce Ice Swimming as a new category and, we believe, it is only a matter of time before an Ice Swimming event is added to the quadrennial Winter Olympics.
Russia has been one of the leaders in winter swimming. The vast country, with plenty of frozen territories, has aided in the evolution of the sport. With cold and ice an integral part of their lives, the Russian people have adapted to their brutal winters. Hardened swimmers from Ireland to South Africa flocked for the first time to Russia’s winter swimming championships in 2012. As expected, Barkai, Stramrood and Palframan joined their colleagues from around the world.
The event took place a frozen lake just outside of Tyumen Tyumen. Surrounded by trees caked in a snowy winter ice, the organizers cut two 25m pools in the ice with two lanes each. Wooden decks served as a start platform while the walls of the extreme pool were 1m wooden planks at the edges.
The competition was held over two days. The first day was focused on short swims of 25m and 50m sprints while the endurance swim challenged people on the second day. The facilities where sufficient for safety reasons, but “far from comfort and luxury” recalled Barkai.
A debate arose: 1km or more? “Much easier said than done,” smiled the experienced South Africans. “When we arrived at the venue, the outdoor frozen hole carved to precise specifications sent a cold panic down our spines. This winter was 10-15ºC colder than normal. The outside air temperature hovered around -24ºC (-11ºF) on the first day. We had just arrived from Cape Town where summer was in full swing at the beach holiday town. We came from a land where t-shirts and pair of slops does the job. It is impossible to explain how bitterly cold it is to stand at -24ºC with light winds blowing snow and grey cloud cover over the pool – and knowing that we had to swim in this weather.
Between the jokes and chirps we looked at each other and said, ‘OK, we need an exit strategy here, this is too insane.'”
The South African crew whose expertise in dealing with hypothermia and afterdrop in various International Ice Swimming Association events is second to none got even more nervous when they saw the facilities in Tyumen. “How are we expected to get out after a frozen swim to a wooden sauna 200m away from the pool in -24ºC?!?” questioned Barkai.
When the event started amid loud announcements and cheers, all in Russian, the English-speakers understood nothing but the fact they had to get a medical check. “We were still chirping and maintaining a strong sense of humour to hide the intense chill down our spines. The 50m sprint came and went. It was a surreal experience, changing in the main hall, walking to the pool in slops and our Speedos with one cap and a pair of goggles. By the time the flag was down for the start, we were frozen solid. The swim was so short and intense, we can’t remember the dive or the strokes but we did feel the intense pain in our fingers and our feet.”
But 25m and 50m swims had only given a brief introduction to what was in store for the endurance swim on the second day. Yet Day One’s experience was beneficial to all. “We felt better and started to psych ourselves for the next day, suppressing an extremely strong urge to drink ourselves silly. The cold and the swim gives one such a rush and sense of health and vigour which is hard to explain unless you have done it,” explained Barkai. “The following day we needed to be ready at 8 am to leave to the pool.”
While 8 am seems like a reasonable time to depart to a swimming competition, during winter, the sun rises at 10:30 am.
“It was INSANE!” Barkai continued. “We got to the pool at around 9 am without a breakfast and fueled only with a lukewarm cup of coffee. The day was significantly colder at -30ºC (-22ºF). Overnight, the pool had frozen solid.”
If the all-encompassing white environs weren’t enough to worry the endurance ice swimmers, the frozen towel standing straight up by the pool, left from the day before, was. Like a white flag of surrender, the frozen towel was another stark reminder that Mother Nature had the upper hand in this battle between man and nature. “The intensity of the cold freaked us out. We checked all the safety facilities and procedure again,” recalled Barkai. “It was not an easy task when all is in Russian and our translator was also one of the main organisers. We have our own safety procedures and rules and we like to be comforted by them.”
But in the world of international ice swimming, Barkai internalized the cultural and linguistic gaps. “It was quite arrogant of us to think that we in Cape Town could understand cold better than the Russians. We couldn’t spend more than 10 minutes outside without having to rush back in and sit by the heaters and defrost our legs and faces.”
But the greater question for the Capetownians was how were they going to spend 20 minutes in the water and swim under these conditions? “It looked like an impossible challenge. While we sat down and had a good chat, people around us started to shorten the distance from a possible 800m or 500m to 150m or 300m. Most of them are also well-known hard-core cold-water swimmers, English Channel swimmers. They literally looked very pale at the thought of the endurance swim. We shared our fears with friends on Facebook and we got the typical male South African responses like ‘Stop complaining, man up and do it…’ while the South African females were gentler with encouragement like ‘You can do it, but please be careful.'”
The medical check was not just a cursory procedure. One of the extreme swimmers was disqualified by the doctor with very high blood pressure. With their hearts racing, Palframan went to get his medical check first and came out with disheartening news. “I am fine. What now? Exit strategy one gone.” Barkai went next and, as expected, passed with flying colours. “Right, Ryan is our only hope,” was the outcome that gave initial promise. Stramrood went in to see the doctor and stayed and stayed and stayed. Barkai went in to check on his friend. “The doc is not happy. My blood pressure is very high,” summarized Stramrood who had a heart condition that elevated the risk of his planned endurance swim. The doctor instructed Stramrood to come back in 30 minutes for another check. “Our sense of humour and chirps died. We found a warm corner and debated what to do now? We decided that if Ryan can’t swim, then the rest of us don’t swim too. If Ryan can swim a shorter distance, then we all do the same. We came as a team and we stay as a team. The decision was mixed with some possible relief but a strong sense of we came here to swim.”
The team decision gave the trio a sudden rush of adrenalin. Their desperate attempt to get out the swim transformed to a strong desire to swim and face the challenge. “The next half an hour was very tense. Rumours started flying that the South African team was bailing out. We knew that there are very high expectations here.” Most of the swimmer knew of Barkai and his Antarctica swim as well as the Discovery Channel program Superhuman Showdown. The ambiance seemed to fall with the disappointment that Barkai and team was letting everyone down. Stramrood was called to see the doctor. After a lengthy wait, he emerged with a smiling thumbs up. “Great, our minds were getting into the right place now: we are swimming and we are going to do it. Focus and focus…here we come.”
The Russians swam first as the outside temperature started to drop. At 4 pm, Barkai was called to swim with the air temperature still at -30ºC. Barkai stood by the pool ready to dive in Speedo briefs, cap and goggles. But he was unexpectedly told, “You swim later, you go inside.”
“Oh, what a mind @#$%,” recalled Barkai. “With very little conversation, we were very worried about the recovery process. We didn’t know how or what. Basically we had to let go and trust the Russians to look after us. Finally at 4:30 pm I was called to swim. We all decided to do 1 km and that’s it. No bravery or heroes. We need to come home alive. Everything outside was sticky. At -30ºC, everything is frozen in seconds.”
Just before Barkai was called back for his heat, a Russian woman just finished her 1 km endurance swim, swimming head-up breaststroke without goggles. “Her eyelashes froze solid and she couldn’t open them. They basically dragged her to the sauna to slowly defrost her eyes. Moisture in the nose froze solid. Breathing was like inhaling wasabi in slow shallow intakes. Any facial hair or long hair exposed to the icy air just froze immediately. Yet the water looked surprisingly inviting at just above 0ºC. It was utter madness,” described Barkai.
“When I dived in and started swimming, my hands and feet froze so quickly that it almost numbs the pain. With every stroke, a wet arm gets out the water in -30ºC for few seconds. Water conducts heat and cold 25 times faster than air. There is no better way to explain it than the feeling of icy running down your exposed arm. Turning is complicated by the fact that the deck is frozen and a wet hand touching it can literally get super glued to the deck. You can easily leave some layers of skin on the deck without noticing. So touching the sides must be done under water, pushing with the legs, not too hard so the breathing does not gets jolted. One lap, two laps, and suddenly it was 40 laps.”
Barkai explained his mindset. “We cannot do this swim without a focused mind. The mind feels as if it is like a laser beam excluding any sight, sound or thought that is not 100% related to task of stroking through the water. Once finished swimming you can’t touch anything. You just raise your arm and wait to be dragged out. Skin is bright red. It is almost glowing. By the time you get to the sauna your skin is covered with a thin layer of ice giving the term icing on the cake a new meaning.”
Stramrood and Palframan were up next. They felt torn because their teammate had just completed the 1 km swim and they had to do it despite the sun had already gone down. Everything was getting gray as the air temperature dropped yet again to -33ºC. While the duo was getting ready, Barkai’s body was dragged to the dry sauna to get dried. “The sensation of your inner cold is hard to describe. Your chest is tight and your mind is somewhere in a very narrow tunnel vision of survival. Your memories from previous recoveries keep surfacing as I braced myself for the after drop roller coaster. Ryan and Kieron were looking after me in the sweaty sauna. It was very comforting, but it was not easy for their own minds.”
After the dry sauna, the swimmers were sent to the wet sauna with no questions asked or answered. “You go here…” were the instructions.. Three Russian women in swimsuits cover the swimmers with wet towels and start pouring cold water on the towel in a 20-minute process. Hot and cold using water and wet towels to bring the swimmers back from their hazy after drop world.
Barkai had returned from the danger zone still cold but defrosted in time to see his teammates dive in for their own 1 km. The South African pair decided to swim together. “It was amazing the see two South African caps ploughing through the ice water like synchronized swimmers. The were doing very well despite the -33ºC air temp. It was so bitterly cold and here they are swimming. Before long, Ryan and Kieron had done their 1 km. Ryan, despite his initial high blood pressure, comes out like a hero as does Kieron. They both had that glazed look an ice swimmer gets at the end of the swim, but they were good. The duo walked to the sauna with supervision to get their heating process started.”
The post-swim process was something to see. “The nurses took buckets of snow – like sea sand – and rubbed their skin hard. It is a painful exercise, but it gets the circulation going before we got the wet towel and water treatment. As worried as we were, we must admit that the Russian recovery process was amazing. We felt very safe in their hands. It was by far the best recovery we had in all our ice swims. We found out that it is something they developed and improved over the years of diving into ice waters.”
And the internal sense of accomplishment is hard to describe. “Nothing can explain the sense of pride and euphoria after completing such an intimidating challenge. Swimming 1 km in the middle of the winter in Siberia, at water temperatures of 0ºC and air temperatures below -30ºC. We are so elated and so thankful to the Russians who invited us and supported us with utmost humility throughout the extreme endurance swim. We felt like celebs in Siberia.”
As the trio headed back to their Southern Hemisphere summer, they never lost their sense of humor. “It was time go home, back to Camps Bay Beach or Brede river to family and kids. Shorts, slops, icy cold beer or malt…with little ice please.”
For another perspective of swimming over 1000 meters at 0ºC, read Nuala Moore’s account here.
Copyright © 2012 by World Open Water Swimming Association