ice Swimming

Going sub zero 

Words: Ruth Morgan
Photo: Shamil Tanna 

Photographer Shamil Tanna is ready for any challenge, having photographed everyone from Lady Gaga to David Cameron. But when he visited Murmansk, Russia to document the inaugural Ice Swimming World Championships for the Red Bulletin, he embarked on his weirdest assignment yet. 

THE RED BULLETIN: So, what is the world of international ice swimming like?

SHAMIL TANNA: Very odd. And very, very cold.

Did you find time to try it out yourself?

No way. Absolutely not. The guys that do it have to be a bit insane I think. It was cold enough outside of the water.

How cold was it?

The water they were swimming in was between 0°C and 1°C. And the air temperature was around -5°C - but with wind chill it felt more like -20°C. I was lying on my belly on the ice with no gloves on most of the day, by the pool which was cut out of a frozen lake. So believe me, I know. But that was still nothing compared to taking on that water wearing Speedos. 

ice Swimming

“The water they were swimming in was between 0°C and 1°C. And the air temperature was around -5°C - but with wind chill it felt more like -20°C”

Was the temperature (and lack of gloves) the biggest challenge for you as a photographer?

It was very challenging from a photographic point of view, but not in the way you’d think. It was the heat and moisture that proved to be a challenge. The swimmers’ recovery process happened in different environments. They had a heated tent, a hot changing room and then they had a large sauna. Cameras get condensation at different temperatures, and they can take three or four hours to acclimatise to that temperature. Otherwise they just steam up. To avoid this I ended up leaving different cameras in different environments, then would only use each one in the environment it was acclimatised to. The camera in the sauna was dripping wet, there was water pouring off it. You’re putting cameras through such extreme changes, but luckily they were all fine. 

Shamil Tanna and Ice Swimming

Shamil in position, sans gloves 

Was the sport of ice swimming what you expected?

I went in there with no real knowledge of the sport. It turned out to be not only the weirdest, but one of the most interesting shoots I’ve ever done. It’s such an extreme thing. In more common extreme sports you’ve always got the potential to hurt yourself or put yourself through pain. But in this sport you’re absolutely guaranteed to feel pain. I think that’s almost unique. It’s similar to boxing, but in boxing there’s no guarantee you’ll be punched. In ice swimming there’s guaranteed pain afterwards. And during. And it’s extreme pain. These guys raise the bar of pain in sport to the absolute next level. 

Sounds extreme in every way! Was it difficult to watch?

It was, but equally all the swimmers are so passionate about it. They all genuinely get something from ice swimming that enriches their lives, and that was fascinating to me. 

ice Swimming

Do you think it will be included in the next Winter Olympics?

I’m not sure my money would be on it appearing at the next Olympics, but in the future who knows? It was certainly popular in Russia. The World Championships  pretty much took over the town. I didn’t expect it to be so well organised. The hospitality was incredible. The closing ceremony took place in Murmansk’s main square and was on such a big scale… there were fireworks, fire dancing, children holding papier mâché doves, 100-metre-high projections… it was crazy. 

Were you watching from the sidelines?

Actually I became an honorary member of the Great Britain team in the athletes’ parade. I got handed a Union Jack and pushed into line. I waved at the crowd all the way. Not only was it was the first parade I’ve ever been in, it was the first parade I’ve been in that I didn’t belong in. But hopefully not the last.


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