But transforming oneself from a professional marathon swimmer to a world-class ice swimmer is truly extending one’s range.
Only one such athlete comes to mind: Christof ‘Wandi’ Wandratsch of Germany.
Touted as the most important ice swimming event in Germany with 27m, 54m, 450m and 1 km races, the Wöhrsee ice pool will be held alongside the longest castle in the world in Bavaria.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: One of the greatest and fastest channel swimmers of all time, Christof Wandratsch, is now an ice swimmer. That is similar to Ous Mellouli, the gold medalist in the 1500m, becoming an open water swimmer. How will Christof’s participation in ice swimming help the sport?
Ram Barkai: I think great swimmers can be very versatile in various disciplines. They usually tend to gravitate towards their competitive advantage, mostly directed by their coaches. Very seldom do they explore other disciplines, distances or styles. But when it happens successfully, they open a new gate of possibilities for other elite swimmers. I hope Christof will do this for Ice Swimming. It is critical for the growth of the sport.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: You started International Ice Swimming Association (IISA) in South Africa, but now the IISA is expanding around the world. What did you and Christof have to do in order to launch in Germany?
Ram Barkai: Christof and I swam the Murmansk Mile early on this year. It is actually only a 1.1 km river swim across a very strong current. The average swimmer usually covers a mile from one side of the river to the other, so it’s called a mile swim. He heard about the Murmansk International Ice Swimming Association 1st World Championships in March 2015. He asked me to run an IISA 1 km in Germany. It is not difficult, but requires a deep understanding of swimming in extreme conditions and cold water. IISA provides a straightforward set of rules for the 1 km event. They follow common sense and are based on our vast experiences for safety and integrity of the races.
Local sponsors are very important and Christof founded AquaSphere which is great. IISA has also been approached by Colin Hill from The BigChill Swim who will run an IISA-sanctioned 1 km swim in the UK in February 2015. Fergal Somerville, the North Channel swimmer from Ireland, is also looking at doing an ISSA event and so is Pádraig Mallon and Nuala Moore, all in the winter of 2015. I intend to have one in South Africa in July 2015 if the desert gets cold enough, so we are growing. It will be a very interesting season for IISA. We are starting to rank Ice Swimmers around the world and we will attract new strong swimmers.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Germany seems like a great country to do ice swimming. The German winters are long and cold, the athletes are outstanding, and there are plenty of lakes. What advantages does Germany have to offer ice swimming events?
Ram Barkai: Germans usually do thing properly and efficiently. Germany is a very sporty nation with great athletes. So I have no doubt they will run a very good event and will set a great benchmark for the IISA 1 km event. It is our first 1 km official event. It is very important for us that it will be successful. A successful event for IISA is a safe event and a great challenge.
Ice Swimming is coming, slowly but surely, as a new type of sport. It is swimming, but it offers a new discipline to swimmers.
Like every sport and especially extreme sports, it requires high level of fitness and health. But it also requires different training and a mind set which allow other types of swimmers to excel. It slowly breeds a new type of athletes. It requires body fat and strength. Speed and a very strong mind. Not everyone is going to like it, but it is a new and challenging and success in Germany will attract others to get involved.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: How can interested people get involved safely in IISA or ice swimming in general?
Ram Barkai: People can get involved in many ways. You can start as an observer, a second, or a safety person. It is good to see the sport and what involved before you decide to dive in. The sport is growing rapidly. We have International Winter Swimming Association and Winter Swimming which is focused more on the health benefits of icy waters and recreational swimming and tourism, but it also provides a wonderful entry-level experience for anyone who aspires to become an Ice Swimmer or compete in IISA events. I have seen tough and experienced swimmers going straight for the longer distances; some are very tough as they adjust quickly, but some athletes get a series ICE COLD reality check.
We are not polar bears or seals. It is not natural for us to swim in icy waters, but it is also not natural for us to fly or do many other extreme sports. My personal suggestion is don’t be scared, but also do your homework. See how you deal with 5-10 minutes of swimming first. If you go straight to 0ºC water, be aware that it is vastly different from 5ºC, but still the same in terms of swimming in icy waters. It is a new experience. Learn and understand how your body react to the ice, understand how your mind handles this.
Like altitude or deep sea diving, as you learn, you can push further and increase safety. I managed to the skinny superwoman Lexie Kelly to sit for whole five minutes in 0ºC ice bath in her bikini. She was bright red when she came out, but she was 100% fine. I really hope to get Petar Stoychev in the water in Murmansk. He can choose the distance.
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