Christof Wandratsch is submerged in the forbiddingly black water of a 25m-long pool, cut out of the thick ice of Semenovskoye Lake in Murmansk, Russia. His brain is screaming at him to get out of the water. His face is numb. His legs feel as if knives are being pushed into them; his hands and feet are alive with pain. But this is what the German ice swimmer expected – it’s what he’s spent countless hours training for.
Although Wandratsch is aiming to beat the six other men in the lanes alongside him, the real battle is going on in his head. In this brutal environment, it takes mental steel to ignore every primal instinct to flee, and to complete the full 40 lengths of the race. He asks himself a question with each stroke: are my legs still kicking? Is my form strong? Do I know where I am? As long as the answer is yes, he keeps swimming.
Wandratsch, a champion long-distance swimmer who crossed the English Channel in a world record- breaking time in 2005, discovered ice swimming in 2013 when searching for a new challenge.
The sport is growing rapidly, and 50 swimmers have travelled to Murmansk in north-west Russia from 15 different countries, including Argentina, Australia and Zimbabwe, to compete in the first Ice Swimming World Championships. There are few locations more testing.
It’s bitterly cold. The vast white expanse of frozen lake is flanked by rows of white-topped, unmistakably Soviet housing blocks and leafless trees. A 1km race is a marathon by ice-swimming standards, and to survive in these temperatures requires total focus. The driving snow hits zero-degree water and exposed flesh; the swimmers are armed only with a pair of Speedos, goggles and a swimming hat.
This is man versus cold in the purest sense. “There will be pain,” said Wandratsch before the race. “But that’s the test. You must be strong in your mind. You can’t be afraid of the water.” Here, there’s good reason to be scared. This is the Arctic Circle. Russian Lapland. Here, the water can kill you.
Ice swimming is defined as a swim that takes place in water of 5°C or below. Although dipping into ice water is traditional in countries such as Russia and Finland, long-distance events are new, a world away from silly hats and shots of schnapps.
“Ice swimming requires a unique skill set,” says Patrick Corcoran, a car dealership manager from Dublin, Ireland, who’s been ice swimming for almost a year.
“An ice kilometre is the Everest of swimming. It’s not about being fast, it’s about mental energy. An Olympic swimmer wouldn’t last a second in this water. Your mind is screaming, ‘Get out of here!’ You feel like Shackleton on an expedition. Then comes the recovery – the swim accounts for only 35 per cent of the total effort; 65 per cent comes afterwards. You have to fight your way back into the world. It’s extreme.”
Recovery is a gruelling and painful process that has to be precisely managed by a team to prevent full-on hypothermia. Swimmers emerge from the ice water unable to use their frozen hands or feet; they can’t dress themselves or stand upright unaided.
Their speech is slurred and the blood has drained from their extremities to protect their core. ‘Coming back’, as most refer to it, can take anything from 20 minutes to three hours, depending on the length of the swim and the swimmer’s experience.
“The swim isn’t over until the recovery is over,” says South African competitor Ram Barkai, founder of the International Ice Swimming Association (IISA).
“People look right through you when they come out – I call it the devil’s stare. Recovery is like an out-of-body experience. Your core temperature drops as cold and warm blood mix, which feels like the drop on a rollercoaster. You learn to fight it.”
Barkai is an indefatigable former hedge-fund trader and self-styled adventurer who has swum, among many other challenges, a kilometre in Antarctica and Siberia, the latter at -33°C. In the six years since he founded the IISA, Barkai has codified the sport with official rules and safety guidelines, paving the way for these inaugural World Championships.
“If you push too hard, the ice will win,” he says. “People ask why we push the limits, but they don’t understand that we plan every detail. We take safety precautions. None of us have a death wish. This isn’t guts and brawn. You need to know your limits, trust your team.”
Safety here is paramount. A short walk from the ice pool, a children’s activity centre has been transformed into ice-swimming HQ. Policemen in navy fur hats, clutching black truncheons, keep all but the official competitors and their teams from the front steps.
Inside, a warm, wood-panelled wet room contains swimmers in various phases of recovery after their (somewhat ironically named) heats. They’re tended to by a continuous relay of shirtless, tattooed Russians who cover the swimmers in warm towels to gradually bring them back from wherever their ice swim has taken them.
Outside this room is the medical assessment area, its walls covered with children’s paintings. The pictures appear at odds with the severe-looking nurses in white uniforms, and the nervous-looking swimmers waiting for the obligatory ECG before racing.
Behind a green curtain, sole Chinese competitor Jiangming Zhu, a steel company worker, is sitting with his Russian translator. Zhu’s ECG has shown an irregular heart rhythm, and the two are having a frantic conversation via the Google Translate app on his iPad. The message is clear: he won’t be allowed to race.
It’s a blow for Zhu. Despite the pain and risk, ice swimmers get something from this sport that’s hidden from those yet to embrace it. “People may not understand the appeal,” says Wyatt Song, a 38-year-old photographer from Sydney, Australia. “But when you’re doing things at your limit, you feel more alive. You really get to know yourself at zero degrees.
As soon as you enter the water, you’re fighting that cold shock, and during that fraction of a second you realise what you can endure. The euphoria afterwards is incredible. It’s addictive.” Several swimmers use the word ‘addiction’ when describing the euphoric, endorphin-fuelled feelings that sweep over them once they’ve recovered. More enduring are the lessons that can be taken back to dry land.
“What you learn, where you have to go mentally, definitely feeds into your everyday life,” says South African Ryan Stramrood, who owns an advertising agency in Cape Town. “I look at life very differently now. I’ve learned the benefits of leaving my comfort zone. Without this sport, I wouldn’t have pitched for half the business I have. Now, I go in balls-to-the-wall.”
Everyone here has their own approach to ice swimming. Russian competitor Alexander Brylin heard it could help him give up alcohol, so he cut his own ice pool in a local lake; Estonian financial risk analyst Henri ‘Ice Machine’ Karma, the unofficial world champion over a kilometre, wanted stress relief – “I ran into the 3°C seawater one November evening and felt alive,” he says.
Rory Fitzgerald, a council worker from the UK, wanted to progress from Christmas Day dips – now he trains in icy lakes in Snowdonia. Swimmers from South Africa and Ireland often head to local fisheries to get the ice used for storing fish and make a resistance-building ice bath. Now, in Murmansk, all are united in the 1km challenge.
“You train to be strong, physically and mentally,” says Nuala Moore, a shopkeeper from Kerry, Ireland. “You have to engage the fight. Inside, we’re warriors. Fear isn’t a reality, fear is an emotion, and you have to park it. Then you reap the rewards.”
Christof Wandratsch is sitting in the sauna room, wrapped in warm towels. A few moments ago, he was keeled over on the wooden bench, suffering the inevitable pains of recovery. But now life is coming back. He’s sitting up, shivering profusely – a good sign that the body is recovering.
Wandratsch has just learned that he’s the first ice-swimming world champion. He did it in a time of exactly 13 minutes, beating the previous fastest time of 13m 53s, set by Henri Karma, who finished third on this occasion.
“I’ve swum the English Channel, distances of 80km,” says Wandratsch, “so 1km should be easy. But this is so different, so painful. I enjoy extremes, though. I don’t take silly risks. If you’re a marathon runner or pro skier, there’s risk, there’s pain. You just have to train every day and give it everything you have. The feeling of winning is hard to put into words. I’m very proud. I’m part of ice-swimming history.”
Later that night, fully dressed but sporting flip-flops, Ram Barkai waits for the elaborate World Championships closing ceremony to begin in the centre of Murmansk. “The strange thing about ice swimming,” he says, “is that during every swim, I rehearse my retirement speech. I’m 57, I’ve got nothing to prove. But the euphoria you get from this is so incredible. Tonight we’ll sit down, drink a vodka and plan our next adventure.”