The World of Ice Swimming

A northern hemisphere winter has naturally put an end to my outdoor swimming for a few months. I managed to swim a little at Parliament Hil Lido when I first arrived in London and celebrated when I made it into single digits. Just as I achieved my feat however  a cold snap went over the country and saw the water plunge further. This was enough to scare me off with my relatively short history of cold water swimming.

There are a group of swimmers however that do get out and swim year round no matter the temperature. A few of the swimmers I know got into the sport through efforts to acclimatise for the English Channel and other swims. There are also many regular swimmers that do it.

It was pure coincidence that I ended up watching these ice swimmers at the Ice Swimming World Championships in Burghausen, Bavaria. My New Years travels had taken me to Germany and I happened to meet a traveler just arrived in Munich from Ireland who said to me something along the lines of: “you wouldn’t believe but there was this big group of people on my plane who are here for the World Ice Swimming Champs”. I think this was probably after I commented how much of a novelty snow was for me and that this was probably the coldest place I had visited.

Sure enough a look on Facebook and few enquiries later I confirmed all this. Instead of doing the usual tourist things in Munich, I decided I was going to make a little day trip and see the action for myself.

Burghausen, being a castle town, was gorgeous and covered in a blanket of snow. But boy was it cold! The water almost looked alluring because it was about 10-15c warmer than the air! (Water 3c, Air -10-14c). With the exception of the swimming area, the lake was completely frozen over.

As there were no New Zealanders to cheer for, I found myself supporting the South Africans and the Irish. These were the swimmers and support crew that I found myself meeting and talking to so it kind of followed from there.

Swimmers all swam 1km in speed seeded heats. Fastest times were over 13mins for women and over 12mins for men (can’t remember the splits). If you forgot about the temperatures, starting calls such as ‘please take off your clothes’ and a bit of lane zig zagging as swimmers got near the end, it could have been mistaken for a regular swim event. Behind the scenes swimmers had a series of recovery stations made up of saunas etc to help them warm up safely and ward off any hypothermia.

It is definitely different being a spectator rather than a competitor. I watched as many of the locals arrived and had this perplexed look on their faces that said ‘these people are crazy’. The temperatures also meant that we didn’t need much encouragement to get in the spirit and dance with the music to keep blood circulating. In good German fashion, I also enjoyed some of the glüwein (mulled wine) on offer.

As an ocean swimmer I am always encouraged to find others who are crazier than me. It’s the swimmers testing the limits (safely and with lots of acclimatisation) that make you realise what’s possible.

I will have to return to Munich and do the tourist thing. Maybe in the summer when the beer gardens are open.