“I DON’T WANT TO scare you, but if you don’t have a little anxiety about being out there, don’t go out,” says Greg O’Connor to the 93 swimmers who have committed to launching themselves into a lap pool that has been carved into thick ice. “It means you have no idea what you’re getting yourself into.”
It’s a Saturday morning in late February 2020 at the Memphremagog Winter Swim Festival, held over two days at Lake Memphremagog in Newport, Vermont.
O’Connor, 51, who serves as safety director for the annual festival, is holding a briefing inside a tavern that doubles as a staging area. The popularity of ice swimming has spiked in recent years, so about half the field is new.
As basically the only subzero event in North America, the Winter Swim Fest makes its own rules. The frigid “pool” is limited to two lanes and 25 metres. Races range from 25 to 200 metres and include the freestyle and butterfly strokes and various relays. While parka-clad volunteers clock times, competitors’ race attire must be chillingly confined to a cap, goggles, and a standard swimsuit.
This setup means no flip turns (“If you turn wrong, you end up under the ice,” O’Connor says). No holding the ladder or the wall too long at the end (“Your hand can freeze to it”). And no matter what, stay in touch with how you’re feeling (“You can go downhill really fast”).
It started as a half-joke in the winter of 2014. Race director Phil White, then in his mid-sixties, posted a photo of himself on Facebook standing on the ice of Lake Memphremagog with a threefoot circular saw and the phrase, “Anybody want to go swimming?”
Darren Miller, a marathon swimmer and race organiser, saw the post and called to ask, “Are you serious?” One year later, 40 hardy swimmers turned up for the first event, and over the next half decade participation doubled with little obvious reward at stake. Bragging rights and pool records aside, the top finishers receive little more than Vermont maple syrup and homemade beef jerky.
After the briefing, several swimmers around me chatter nervously about how maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. I can empathise. A warm-water marathon swimmer, I’ve signed up for the 25-metre breaststroke. In less than five hours, I too will be forcing myself into the frigid water.
COLD-WATER SWIMMING is considered “ice swimming” when it’s done at temperatures of 5°C or less. It’s not easy to be in water that cold for very long. While it takes about 30 minutes for hypothermia to set in, you can feel sluggish and winded far faster.
The Winter Swim Festival—where the water temperature is 0°C—sets the time limit for its longest events at four minutes. But that hasn’t stopped people from going longer elsewhere. Last year’s Winter Swimming World Championships, in Bled, Slovenia, hosted more than 1,000 swimmers from 36 countries and included a one-kilometre race that took people between 18 and 34 minutes to complete. Extremists push things even further by completing ice miles—about 50 per cent longer.
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