On a frigid February morning in Ireland’s Wicklow Mountains, swimmer Donal Buckley dives headfirst into the boomerang-shaped Lough Dan. Submerged in 38-degree water with no wetsuit for warmth, Buckley begins to freestyle his way across the frozen lake. His goal? To join an elusive club of fewer than a hundred swimmers across the world who have completed an official, mile-long ice swim.
“Imagine taking off all your clothes and climbing into the chilled water in your refrigerator,” says Buckley. “An ice mile is colder than that.”
As he plows on, his muscles contract in the freezing water, delivering less power with every stroke. Fine motor skills are lost. As his body struggles to stay warm, his brain begs for more oxygen. In the final 200 meters, Buckley experiences tunnel vision as he churns closer and closer to shore. Finally, he reaches the beach, where friends await to lift him out of the lake by his tired limbs. He crumples in a moderately hypothermic heap a few yards away. The total time is 38 minutes.
Antarctic Origin Story
Superman’s Fortress of Solitude was an ice cave in the Arctic where the DC Comics superhero could temporarily escape from the hectic pace of life in Metropolis. Ram Barkai, a world-record-holding extreme swimmer from Israel who now lives in South Africa, shares the Man of Steel’s affinity for polar wastelands, and some might consider him a Superman in his own right—he’s appeared on both Stan Lee’s Superhumans and the Discovery Channel’s Superhuman Showdown. However, instead of beginning on the planet Krypton, Barkai’s story has its origins in a frozen lake in Antarctica.
On an excursion to Antarctica in 2008, the then-38-year-old Barkai convinced his expedition leader to let him go for a swim. He’d become a fan of open-water swimming starting in his younger days, when he’d served in Israel’s army, and subsequently enjoyed regular frosty swims in the cold ocean surrounding his home in Cape Town. He leaped into a frozen lake and swam for a full kilometer, for which he later received a Guinness World Record.
“Give me a challenge to excite me, and I’ll find a way to prove everyone wrong,” Barkai says. “I took on the cold water in the sea as a demon I had to face, to get familiar with and conquer.”
After completing another wintry swim in Lake Zurich the following year, this one 2.3 kilometers, Barkai decided to formalize cold, open-water swimming. He created the International Ice Swimming Association in 2009, an organization that standardized the benchmark to one mile in water temperatures below 41 degrees Fahrenheit and that follows English Channel rules (unassisted and uninterrupted time in the water, no wetsuits allowed). Today, only 87 swimmers from 17 countries have successfully completed an ice swim—locations include sites in Norway, Alaska, Sweden, and the U.S. (Boston Harbor) in the middle of winter. Barkai says that number is growing, however, and he hopes to one day make ice swimming a sport at the Winter Olympics.
How They Train
Proper training and experience are more than just a question of peak performance for those attempting to swim a mile in freezing waters: they’re a matter of life and death. An ice swim is not an experience the weekend Ironman contender should try on a whim.
Training begins with covering significant distances in normal water temperatures before even attempting cold swims. Of course, intimate familiarity with cold-water submersion is a must. Barkai recommends daily dunks of under a minute to help acclimate the body over time to the piercing sensations frigid waters impose. Many swimmers use ice baths to store these pain perceptions in their memory so they don’t come as a shock later on in open water. Much emphasis is placed on the fundamentals—stroke, breathing, and speed—since technique tends to devolve in a freezing lake.
Perhaps even more important than physical conditioning is its mental counterpart. Understanding how the cold affects your body while in the water is essential, and being able to stay calm under such intense conditions is what will keep you from drowning in a panic.
The cold has an incredible ability to focus the mind. From the second you plunge into the water, you don’t have the luxury of letting your attention wander to outside thoughts. The mind must be zeroed in on every single stroke, every single breath. Despite the pain, you must continue to move.
“Unlike marathon swimming, you can’t just switch off your brain—it’s too dangerous,” Barkai says. “I run a regular checklist, like I would in an airplane: hands, fingers, toes, tongue, vision, rationality. I make sure that I am still capable, both physically and mentally. When that’s not the case, it’s time to get out.”
Being ice swim–ready means more than simply being physically fit: you must of course be fit in terms of strength, but you must also be fit in terms of overall health, says Barkai. In such frigid temperatures, your body must pump more blood to your arteries, which results in higher blood pressure. For those who don’t know what they’re doing, risks can include temporary or permanent nerve damage; drowning from involuntary aspiration, due to cold-shock response; hypothermia; and loss of motor control.
Based on his own experience, Buckley is concerned that less knowledgeable swimmers will attempt the feat without the requisite training, background, or confidence; he believes that the IISA should only permit ice swims once a participant can present a verified training log. Even the most skilled cold-water swimmers don’t undertake the challenge without a proper support system in case of emergency. Let’s just say that ice swimming is not for the faint—or weak—of heart.
“The biggest danger actually presents itself post-swim, from cardiac fibrillation,” says Buckley. “I’ve spoken with two doctors who have expertise in cold water, and they believe there is significant cardiac risk for everyone, regardless of experience.”
To read more about Donal Buckley’s ice swim, including how he trains and the associated risks, check out his open-water swimming blog.Below, see a short documentary about Buckley.
The 22-time Olympic medalist beat rival Ryan Lochte by a tenth of a second in the preliminary round of the 100-meter butterfly. Phelps’ 52.84 seeded him first going into the finals heat, but Lochte bested Phelps for the win with a 51.93, followed by Phelps' second-place 52.13.
When pressed about the motivation for his return, Phelps said, “I’m doing this because I want to. I want to be back in the water…I’m having fun.” He also credited a love of competition, and a desire to get back into pro form.
“When he first came back, he was so out of shape,” Bowman said to laughter from the press-conference crowd. “So it took a while to say, ‘OK, he can do this in public for somebody.’”
Phelps said he spent his time off traveling, golfing, and putting on more than 30 pounds; he peaked at 225 after racing in London at 187. Now at 194 with a podium finish under his suit, it seems Phelps is back, just like the popular hashtag proclaims.
But Phelps hasn’t announced that he’s aiming for the 2016 Olympics. Even if he did, he won’t get an automatic in. “Should Phelps’ comeback journey lead to the Olympic Trials, he’ll have to re-qualify for the Olympics,” USA Swimming’s Mike Gustafson writes. “There are fast swimmers on the circuit right now. They’ll be faster in 2016. Phelps knows this, Bowman knows this, but many swim fans don’t.”
Just before the 2012 Olympics, Michael Phelps told Anderson Cooper in a 60 Minutes interview, “Once I retire, I’m retitring. I’m done.” Phelps went on to win six medals in London, bringing his total medal count to 22, then promptly threw in his Speedo. Or so he said.
Today, Phelps’ longtime coach, Bob Bowman, announced that Phelps will compete at a swim meet in Mesa, Arizona on April 24-26. It will be the first time Phelps has competed since London. "I think he's just going to test the waters a little bit and see how it goes," Bowman told the Associated Press. "I wouldn't say it's a full-fledged comeback."
Bowman’s effort to lower our expectations didn’t work. There is nothing we’d like more than to see the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time return to the five-ringed stage. So we asked Stanford exercise physiologist, Anne Friedlander, what it will take for Phelps to kick ass in 2016, at the at the ripe old age of 31.
“The biggest thing he’s gonna have to think about is training smarter,” Friedlander says. Phelps famously swam 80,000-plus meters a week (that’s about 50 miles) leading into the 2008 Olympics. That extremely high-volume regimen may not work this time around. “He could need more recovery time,” Friedlander says.
As people age, their tissues become less resilient and more susceptible to damage. “The body was very forgiving when he was young; now he’s going to have to have a smarter training plan—decrease the volume a little bit and higher intensity with more recovery time.”
Watch the Power
“He may find that he doesn’t have quite the explosive power that he used to,” Friedlander says. As athletes age, they tend to lose some of their Type II, fast-twitch muscle fibers, and neurological signaling from the brain to the muscles slows down, though the difference in explosive power between the ages of 27 and 31 may be negligible.
In a sport where hundredths of seconds count, however, a minutely less explosive start off the blocks could knock a swimmer out of medal contention. The lineup Phelps is scheduled to swim in Arizona—the 50- and 100-meter free, and the 100 butterfly—suggests he’s testing out his speed rather than his endurance.
While it’d be easy to say swimmers, like runners, move on to longer distance events as they age, history says that’s just not true. Dara Torres became a worldwide celebrity when she competed in the 2012 Olympic Trials at the age of 45—in the 50 free. She finished fourth in the final heat.
In other sports, athletes with decades in the game have also managed to stay on top. Like Phelps, Brazilian soccer legend Pelé was a teen superstar. He was nearly 30 when he played in his fourth and final World Cup, the quadrennial international soccer championship. The plays he made during that game helped secure his team a victory, and are cited as some of his most famous. He was even named player of the tournament.
Olympic gold medalist, Andre Agassi, turned pro at 16. By the age of 25, he was ranked the number one tennis player in the world. At 32, he became the oldest player to rank second in the world. It wasn’t until he was 36 that extreme back pain forced him to retire.
It’s Going to Be Mental
“Experience really does play a role in this, knowing when to push, when to hold back, what to do in between races, things like that,” Friedlander says. “Understanding the competition, having been in those events before. Just being able to deal with the stress” could give him an edge younger, more resilient athletes don’t have—as long as he stays cool. “For him, a person who’s accomplished more than anyone else, is this gravy, or does it increase the pressure because expectations are so high? I don’t know, that’s in his own head.”
“I was a tomboy, a serious tomboy,” writes Dara Torres in her 2009 memoir Age is Just a Number. “Even as a little kid at El Rodeo Elementary School in Beverly Hills, fancy Los Angeles culture didn’t suit me all that well … my main concerns were sports and winning. I wanted to get picked first for the team, any team, and I usually was.”
We all know what happened next. Torres went on to become a 12-time Olympic medalist—the first and only American swimmer to compete in five Olympic Games (1984, 1988, 1992, 2000, 2008). She medaled at all five Olympiads, most recently in Beijing at age 41.
Despite having "no interest in dresses, dolls, hopscotch, or other stereotypically girly things," Torres has fond memories of growing up in Beverly Hills during the 1970s and ’80s. After all, that's where she learned to swim, in the pool at her mother's house, and later at the Beverly Hills Y and Tandem Swim Club of Culver City.
Although Torres says there’s “not much peeps don’t know about Cali,” she took the time to share a few of her favorite places with Outside.
Describe Beverly Hills. 90210! Need I say more? When I grew up there, it was a beautiful area and very peaceful. The foliage was spectacular. California was alive—the Olympics, the Dodgers, the Lakers. I feel very fortunate. I also made many great friendships that have lasted my entire life.
Best time of year to visit? I love the fall because it's cool during the night and warm during the day
Favorite place to get outside? I enjoyed Big Bear and Mammoth; completely different scenery than being in town.
Best restaurant? Back then a favorite was Trader Vic's—Polynesian Food and fun people watching.
Must-see attraction? The Hollywood sign
Best place to stay? I love the Fairmont in Santa Monica, which is near the Third Street shops and across the street from the beach.
Need to Know:
Beverly Hills is about 12 miles north of Los Angeles International Airport, 300 miles south of Mammoth Lakes, and 100 miles west of Big Bear Lake.