“For these athletes it’s not just a battle to the finish. It’s a battle to stay alive.” – Barkai
The founder of the International Ice Swimming Association (IISA), and unofficial father of the sport is the ice swimming Guinness World Record holder Ram Barkai. He formed it back in 2009 with a vision to formalize swimming in icy water. The association’s passion is to swim in icy waters at every location possible around our globe. Barkai’s ultimate goal is to eventually make ice swimming a sanctioned Olympic sport.
“It’s not you racing against someone else, it’s you racing against the ice-cold and basically competing against your own mind.” -Ice Mile competitor
IISA introduced the Ice Mile which is a mile long race in water of 5C (41F) or less. The swim must be unassisted and with one pair of goggles, cap, and standard one-piece swimsuit that doesn’t extend below the swimmer’s knees and doesn’t go beyond the swimmer’s shoulders or above the neck line.
This race is the ultimate achievement of swimming in ice waters. The sport can take place in a pool, or natural body of water. It is a fully monitored challenge with all the safety and controls in place. So far, 272 people have completed the ice mile (as verified through IISA), and more than 500 have completed the kilometer. The next World Championships will be held in March 2019 in Murmansk, Russia, with other competitions scheduled in the interim.
“It’s hugely mental sport – mind over matter – because you’re only in the water for about 15-20 minutes usually, which is safe.” -Barkai
Even though the sport is significantly a mental endeavor, you do still have to be a very good swimmer. Ice swimming requires the combination of both ironclad physical and mental strength. You need to be able to cover the distance in as short a time as possible because you are, after all, in a drastically hostile environment. Nevertheless, it is more a mental challenge because you have to be prepared to handle immediate pain that only gets worse (unlike other sports where physical pain sets in after a certain amount of time).
“Panic is the #1 killer.” – Barkai
One of the factors that inhibits swimmers from being able to perform is fear. Barmaid recommends a strategy he calls to “under-think”. You have to just jump in immediately. It’s the only way because after you undress from very warm clothing (until you’re basically naked) to dive into ice, well, you might begin to second guess yourself. Then the more time you spend standing on the side contemplating the swim, the less likely you’ll be to actually do it.
“They call it a race, but most would call it insanity.” -That’s Amazing
Ice swimmers have to train not only to be physically fit, but also to overcome their body’s natural reaction to extremely cold water. The sport is a challenge unlike any other on the planet. When a human first enters zero-degree water, they will hyperventilate for about a minute, then normal (-ish) bodily function returns.
It takes a lot of mind power to push the boundaries in these conditions. It is an extreme challenge all around. Take this swimmers description of the experience for example (and he’s done an ice mile several times):
“On the way to a swim I am filled with dread and almost nothing but sheer determination (and having told someone else I’m going to do it) can get me to do it,” John Donald told The Guardian. “When you get in you may have brain freeze. You push on. After a minute, it passes. For few minutes the shock is very bad and you can hardly catch a breath. You concentrate on breathing out and relaxing. Panic grips the mind. This comes and goes throughout the whole swim. Your toes go numb, then your fingers, then feet, hands.”
“After eight to 10 minutes, the pain stops and you start to feel good. Soon feeling good is replaced by elation – you start to feel invincible. You feel numbness traveling up your legs and down your arms. sometimes your neck gets really cold and this is, of course, a worry. As the blood starts to be pulled from your head to your core, you can sometimes feel your consciousness dulling down. Sometimes you don’t notice. There is a ticking time bomb as your core temperature drops and your body wants to stop moving. You know that your time is limited and you wonder where the limit actually lies.”
This is a dangerous sport for sure (although nobody has died in a race as of yet). You are pretty much asking your body to perform in an extreme environment that it’s not meant to survive in. It’s radically different from conventional swimming.
“I’ve always been attracted to the mental challenge rather than who has the biggest muscles.” Barkai
The best ice swimmers look nothing like your average thin and muscular Olympic swimmer. It is required they have about 20% body fat because the extra layer of fat insulates the body and seals in heat.
“The beauty of what we are doing here is showing that if there’s a will, there’s a way.” – Barkai
Ice swimmers are truly incredible People. The amount of willpower behind the motivation to do something like this is one of full capacity. To be able to keep swimming when your body is telling you to stop moving is just a ridiculous achievement. For most people, even getting your body to keep moving, keep swimming on, in normal conditions is not easy! Watch this video and be prepared to be fully impressed: