Bodywork

Polar Plunges Are For the Weak: Meet the World's Ice Swimmers

Ever wanted to swim for a mile in just-above-freezing temperature water? Didn't think so. But a handful of swimmers are taking the challenge.

Ram Barkai takes a dive. "We hiked an hour to find a spot to swim," he says. "I left my speedo in the tent. So I had to make do with my red boxers."     Photo: Ram Barkai

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.”

Hardcore Factor

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.

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