Frozen fish

Freezing the day at the New Zealand National Ice Swimming Pool Championships.


As you went deeper, up to your belly button, your skin prickled with pins and needles. It stung. You gulped, then started to hyperventilate. You didn’t know it at the time, but this was the most dangerous moment. (Gasping as you put your head under can cause water to enter your lungs. Then you drown.) Your heart began racing and you were on the verge of panic. Your blood pressure spiked and glucose and fats were released into your bloodstream, preparing your body for fight or flight. A cocktail of drugs shot through you: cortisol, a stress hormone, was released from your adrenal glands, while a surge of beta-endorphin hormones in your brain provided pain relief and delivered a sense of euphoria.

Ice swimming is a relatively new sport. In 1987, American swimmer Lynne Cox kicked things off when she swam 3.5 kilometres across the Bering Strait from Alaska to the Soviet Union. The water temperature was 4°C, and it took her two hours and six minutes. (In water that is 17°C, which is about 10 degrees colder than your average pool, it is possible to swim for 12 to 14 hours, if you are fit enough. But in water below 5 degrees, that normally drops to 20 minutes.) Her feat has been credited with helping to thaw (ironically) relations between the Cold War leaders Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev.

Twenty years later, in 2007, Lewis Pugh swam one kilometre across the geographical North Pole in his Speedos, as part of a climate change protest. The water was minus 1.7°C, and he suffered frostbite to his fingers.

Things got professional in 2000, when the inaugural Winter Swimming World Championships were held in Helsinki, Finland, attracting 500 competitors. The International Ice Swimming Association (IISA) followed, founded in 2009 by Ram Barkai, the first person to knock off an official “ice mile” – the IISA now runs events in more than 45 countries, and hopes to see ice swimming in the Winter Olympics.

This year, Aotearoa New Zealand held its first IISA sanctioned event. The inaugural New Zealand National Ice Swimming Pool Championships took place in an outdoor pool in Alexandra, Central Otago, from July 16 to 19. As organiser Susan Sherwen told journalist Olivia Caldwell for Stuff, “I googled the coldest town in New Zealand and found Ophir, then looked for pools close to there.” Alexandra fit the brief.

After completing a one-kilometre swim, Sylvia Wanstall is helped by Roger Soulsby, chair of IISA Aotearoa New Zealand Ice Swimming, and Camilla Gulick.

The rules and safety measures for an IISA competition are very specific: the water temperature must be 5°C or below and measured by three digital thermometer readings; swimmers can only wear a standard swimming costume, goggles and a latex cap (no wetsuits); greasing is allowed for chafing, but not insulation; there must be a warming room no further than fifty metres from the pool; and swimmers wear belts around their waste to aid rescue, if necessary.

Most importantly, though, swimmers must undertake an IISA Medical, including undergoing an electrocardiogram and declaring their intent to swim in person to the presiding doctor, prior to registration.

In Alexandra twenty-six swimmers were deemed healthy enough in body and mind to compete in the roster of events, which ranged from a 1000-metre freestyle down to a 4 x 50-metre mixed relay. For the record, the water temperature was 3.5°C, while the air temperature clocked in at -0.01°C.Some were relative beginners who seemed to struggle to get warm after their swim, like Alicia Lopez Negrete, who was more used to swimming in 26-degree Celsius water in her home country of Mexico. Then there were seasoned cold water swimmers like Susan, who broke two world records for her age group (60-64) in Alexandra, and Camille Gulick. Camille swam across Foveaux Strait in February of this year and last year swam in the precursor to the Alexandra event held in Lake Lyndon inland from Christchurch.

Rachel Armstrong is either ecstatic at having finished the race or experiencing the euphoria that is sometimes triggered by immersion in cold water.

Healthy or not, the question ice swimmers get asked most often is “are you mad?” On the contrary. Camille says she believes the health benefits to swimming in ice water go well beyond physical exercise. She suffers from anxiety and finds the challenge of overcoming her fear of the cold helps with that. “Everyone finds their crazy place, mine just happens to be cold water. Skiing terrifies me. Just standing at the top of a steep snow slope looking down makes me feel panicky. I love the feeling of community; people are really supportive. Even the ones that think you’re crazy.”

Patrick Boudreau, a PhD candidate at the University of Otago, has recently finished research looking into the “enhanced resilience” of people who like base jumping, white-water kayaking and rock climbing. Ice water swimming wasn’t included in the study, but he believes it would fit. Patrick found that taking part in extreme sports or adventure recreation, and having to overcome obstacles in severe environments, led to psychological gains that may be transferable to daily stressors, though this takes a lot of being “intentional and mindful.” Life is multi-layered and complicated. An argument with your boss, getting cut off at an intersection, not having enough money – these things can appear tricky to navigate. The cold slices through the noise and narrows down what is important. If you ignore the dangers, the ice water will kill you.

At the Alexandra champs, a calmness did seem to cut through the tension of people facing their worst fears. At the debrief after the second day of competition, Susan asked the competitors, “This is all very new for us, and we were wondering if there is anything you would like changed, or we could improve on?” Someone in the back of the group piped up. “Yeah, the temperature of the water.”

Adapting to cold water does take time, but it was only half a dozen three-minute immersions before the hyperventilating stopped and you started to cope with the pain for longer periods. A human adaptation called Brown Adipose Tissue (BAT) might have something to do with this. Babies are born with a layer of BAT, which protects them against cold. Recent research suggests there is BAT in adult humans too, deposited especially around the shoulder area, which can be stimulated by exposure to low temperatures. The more you are exposed to the cold, the more of you is BAT.

There’s also vasoconstriction, one of the ways the body protects its core temperature, which fluctuates, or should fluctuate, between 36.5 and 37.5 degrees. When it gets chilly, the blood vessels supplying blood to your skin shrink, limiting flow to the surface. Repeated exposure to cold may stimulate rapid vasoconstrictor response. This is good and bad. To keep you alive, more blood is hustled to your internal organs at the expense of your extremities. But after a few lengths, your limbs, lacking enough blood to keep them warm, start to stiffen like gum chewed for too long. (You remember a milder version of this from tramping. It was wet and cold and your fingers became clumsy and you couldn’t zip up your jacket.) This the start of swim failure, which is another way people in cold water drown.

Here you are again, facing a chlorinated pool. You are careful approaching the water, the drips left behind by others have turned to black ice on the concrete. Your mind plays tricks. It must be warm, because it looks exactly as it does in full summer. But the water is only 3.5 degrees.

There are three other swimmers in the lanes beside you. You don’t see them, the cold demands all your attention. You want to bolt, but something makes you stay. Maybe it’s your competitive streak. You talk to yourself. “I’m OK, it’s only a few degrees colder than the lake. The last time my hands were this cold I was able to keep going for at least ten minutes. I’ve trained hard, and I know if I concentrate on my stroke, I’ll get there.” Slowly, your breathing returns to normal and you know that the next stage is to get your shoulders under. Pain! Not blinding, but enough to narrow your focus even further. You feel the palms of your hands stinging, the same with your wrists. Your feet have gone numb. You give the thumbs up to the timekeeper. You push off the wall and your face goes under. The ‘ice-scream’ headache is instant. But in another great miracle of adaptation, the endorphins kick in to the point where you can function almost normally. For the first fifty metres you swim fast, almost a sprint, to generate some heat. Then you settle into a normal rhythm.

After forty laps of the twenty-five-metre pool, and the coldest twenty minutes of your life, you finish. You climb the steps on the side of the pool and into the arms of your support crew. Someone wraps you in a towel, someone else takes a hand that is shaped like Captain Hook’s hook and pushes it into a fleece- lined jacket. This is one of the most crucial points of the swim. Without your supporters you couldn’t dress yourself and could suffer “after drop”, when the cool blood from your extremities starts to circulate back through your body, lowering your core temperature. This can lead to hypothermia. Right now, it’s triggering shivering so violent you think you might crack a tooth. Someone hands you a sugar covered jelly lolly. After half an hour the shaking dies down, and you drink a cup of tea without spilling a drop.