'Cold Actually Feels Good' At The U.S. Winter Swimming Championship

Feb 23, 2015
Originally published on February 25, 2015 7:37 pm

One way to test your mettle in winter is to take one of those quick penguin plunges in icy water. But some stoic swimmers actually carve pools out of frozen lakes and race each other.

The sport of winter swimming is popular abroad, especially in Russia, Scandinavia and China. But last weekend, a newly formed organization to promote winter swimming in the United States held its first national competition on the Vermont-Quebec border.

Wrapped in down coats, competitors from all over the world waited in a warm lakeside restaurant in Newport, Vt., for the races to start. More than two dozen people from around the country raced in a two lane pool cut into the icy lake.

Hometown favorite Brynna Tucker arrived with a cheering section of family and friends.

"Yeah, it's acclimating to the cold because most people forget that cold actually feels good," she says. "If you have a sore knee, if you have a sore elbow, you put an ice pack on it, and the first nine seconds of that, it's horrible."

But around the 10th second of swimming in icy water, she says her body shuts down in an oddly relaxing way.

Elaine Howley, of Waltham, Mass., says these races are much shorter and colder than her previous dive in the English Channel. She says she's not sure how she'll do in this race.

"This sort of thing sounds like a really great idea when you are a couple of beers into the night, and you get down in the morning, and it's like, 'Oh, good God, what have I done?' " she says.

Outside on frozen Lake Memphremagog, a generator hums. It powers a bubbler at the bottom of the 25-meter rectangle that's been cut into the ice and lined with wood. The bubbler is supposed to keep the 30-degree water from freezing, but it's so cold a few swimmers have to keep fishing out ice chunks as they wait for the day to warm up a bit.

Aleksandr Yaklovev is from Latvia, where he trains with an ice swimming club for the international circuit. Some swimmers on his team take only cold showers during racing season.

"It's very dangerous, cold water killing, but we know exactly the language with cold water," he says. "We can swim, we can take this high positive energy and be happy."

Under a row of wind swept international flags stuck in a snow bank, a regal looking woman in a white down jacket greets her many admirers.

"You know, people have done it for thousands of years, even the ancient Greek people knew what the good benefits of cold water are to the human body," says Mariia Yrjö-Koskinen, a Finland native and the president of the International Winter Swimming Association. "It releases the natural endorphins. I have said that it's the best endorphins you can get from the nature."

The 52-year-old mother of four says winter swimming keeps her healthy, and she's never in the water long enough to get hypothermia.

When it's her turn to race in the 25-meter breaststroke, she lowers herself calmly down a makeshift wooden ladder into the frigid water. She wears only a bathing suit, a cap, and a string of pearls. With graceful strokes — no thrashing, no gasping — she pulls ahead of her male competitor and emerges at the other end.

About 40 other swimmers competed in 25, 50, and 100 meter events, and no one bailed out or got hurt. Even though, most of them agreed, this water was colder than it was for another race in Siberia.

Copyright 2017 Vermont Public Radio. To see more, visit Vermont Public Radio.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

One way to see what you're made of in winter is to take one of those penguin plunges into freezing cold water. But more serious swimmers actually carve pools out of frozen lakes and race each other. Over the weekend, the first American winter swimming championship came to northern New England. Vermont Public Radio's Charlotte Albright reports.

CHARLOTTE ALBRIGHT, BYLINE: It's a frosty 18 degrees Fahrenheit here in Newport, Vt. Wrapped in down coats, competitors from all over the world wait in a warm lakeside restaurant for the races to start. Hometown favorite Brynna Tucker has arrived with a cheering section of family and friends. In an hour or so, she will strip down to her bathing suit and swim.

BRYNNA TUCKER: Yeah, it's acclimating to the cold 'cause most people forget that cold actually feels good. If you have a sore knee, if you have a sore elbow, you put an ice pack on it, and the first nine seconds of that - it's horrible.

ALBRIGHT: But around the 10th second of swimming in icy water, she says her body shuts down in an oddly relaxing way. Another swimmer, Elaine Howley, of Waltham, Mass., has swum the English Channel. But today's races are much shorter and way colder, so she's not sure how she will do.

ELAINE HOWLEY: This sort of thing sounds like a really great idea when you're a couple of beers into the night, and you get down in the morning, and it's like, oh, good God. What have I done?

ALBRIGHT: Outside on frozen Lake Memphremagog, a generator hums. It powers a bubbler at the bottom of the 25-meter rectangle that's been cut into the ice and lined with wood. The bubbler is supposed to keep 30-degree water liquid. But it's so cold, a few swimmers have to keep fishing out ice chunks as they wait for the day to warm up a bit.

ALEKSANDR YAKLOVEV: I'm Aleksandr Yaklovev from Latvia, a small Baltic country behind the Baltic Sea.

ALBRIGHT: That's where his ice swimming club trains for the international circuit. Some take only cold showers during racing season.

YAKLOVEV: It's very dangerous, cold water killing. But we know exactly the language with cold water. We can swim. We can take this high positive energy and be happy.

ALBRIGHT: Under a row of windswept international flags stuck in a snow bank, a regal looking woman in a white down jacket greets her many admirers. Mariia Yrjo-Koskinen, of Finland, is the president of the International Winter Swimming Association.

MARIIA YRJO-KOSKINEN: You know, people have done it for thousands of years, even the ancient Greek people knew what the good benefits of cold water are to the human body. It releases the natural endorphins. You know, I say that it's the best endorphin that you can get from the nature.

ALBRIGHT: The 52-year-old mother of four says winter swimming keeps her healthy, and she's never in the water long enough to get hypothermia. When it's her turn to race in the 25-meter breaststroke, she lowers herself calmly down a makeshift wooden ladder into the frigid water.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: And now - you ready?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Ready.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Ready? Swim.

ALBRIGHT: She wears only a bathing suit, a cap and a string of pearls. With graceful strokes - no thrashing, no gasping - she pulls ahead of her male competitor and emerges at the other end.

YRJO-KOSKINEN: Beautiful, beautiful water, so great. Happy.

ALBRIGHT: About 40 other swimmers competed in 25, 50 and 100 meter events, and no one bailed out or got hurt. Even though, they all agreed, this water was colder than it was for another race in Siberia. For NPR News, I'm Charlotte Albright in northeastern Vermont. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.