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'I've grown fat, got a tan & now look like a Siberian'

DONE! Nothing can explain the sense of euphoria after completing such an intimidating challenge

By 0 and 0 and 0
23 December 2012


Would you dare take the Siberian ice swimming challenge? Picture: Ram Barkai

Ice swimming is exploding around the world, and since I founded the International Ice Swimming Association in 2009 with my swimming mates, Andrew, Ryan, Toks and Kieron, new Ice swimmers started appearing all around the world and in South Africa. 

The Guinness World Records is looking to introduce Ice Swimming as a new category. If that happens we will see many more records out there. 

Russia has been one of the leaders in winter swimming. This vast country with plenty of frozen territories has taught these tough people to adapt, and adapt they did. No limits to the harshness of Siberian weather would stop them from swimming.

This was Russia's first winter championship with people from all the remote corners of Russia and the world.

We came from Cape Town, South Africa and won the record of the furthest distance travelled to participate in this wonderfully insane adventure, held in Tyumen, in a frozen lake where the organisers cut two 25m pools in the ice with two lanes each. Wooden decks as a start platform with wooden planks at around 1m deep all around the pool.

You don't want anyone to disappear under the ice sheet into the lake. You will only find them in the summer (well preserved).

Ice swimming in Tyumen, Siberia, by Ram Barkai

The cold and the swim gives one such rush and sense of health and vigour, which is hard to explain unless you have done it. Picture: Ram Barkai

The competition had two days that split between of 25m and 50m sprints on the first day and endurance swims on the second day.

The facilities where sufficient but far from five star. The SA team, all experienced extreme cold water and long distance swimmers, focused on the endurance event. The debate was around 1km or more? Easier said than done. Arriving at the pool, an outdoor frozen hole in the ice sent cold panic down our spines.

It is just impossible to explain how bitterly cold it is standing at -24C with light wind and snow and grey cloud cover. And they wanted us to swim in this weather! Between the jokes and chirps we looked at each other and said, 'OK, we need an exit strategy here, this is too insane.' We looked around the facilities and got even more nervous. How are we expected to get after a frozen swim to a wooden sauna 200m away from the pool in -24C? 

The swimming started, loud announcements and cheers, all in Russian and we understood nothing. 

We had to go a medical check, still chirping and maintaining a strong sense of humour to hide the chill down our spines. The 50m sprint came and went.

Surreal experience, changing in the main hall, walking to the pool in slops and Speedos, one cap and goggles. By the time the flag was down for the start we were solid frozen. The swim was so short and intense, we can't remember the dive and stroke but we did feel the intense pain in our fingers and feet. 

The first day was over; we felt better and started to psyche ourselves for the next day, suppressing an extremely strong urge to drink ourselves silly.

The cold and the swim gives one such rush and sense of health and vigour, which is hard to explain unless you have done it. We managed to control our urge and only have few whiskeys in a near by sushi bar. Tomorrow we need to be ready at 8 am to leave to the pool. Sun only rises here at 10:30 am. Insane!

Ice swimming in Tyumen, Siberia, by Ram Barkai

It was quite arrogant of us to think that we in Cape Town understand cold better than the Russians. Picture: Ram Barkai

We got to the pool at around 9 am, no breakfast and a lukewarm cup of coffee.The day was significantly colder at close to -30C.

Pool frozen solid, we found a frozen towel standing by the pool left from the day before.

The intensity of the cold freaked us, we checked again all the safety facilities and procedure. Not an easy task when all is in Russian and our translator was also one of the main organisers. We have our own safety procedures and rules and we like to be comforted by them.

It was quite arrogant of us to think that we in Cape Town understand cold better than the Russians.

We couldn't spend more than 10 minutes outside without having to rush back in and sit by the heaters and defrost our legs and faces. How are we going to spend 20 minutes in the water and swim? It just looked like an impossible challenge. We set down and had a wee powwow, people around us started to shorten the distance from a possible 800m or 500m to 150m or 300m. Most of them are well known hard-core cold-water swimmers. English Channel swimmers and other 'fits' looked very pale at the thought of the endurance swim.

We shared our fears with friends on Facebook and we got the typical responses South African male 'stop complaining, man up and do it', thanks for these encouraging words. The South African females were gentler with 'you can do it, but please be careful'.

Ice swimming in Tyumen, Russia, by Ram Barkai

We knew that there are very high expectations here. Most knew about our Antarctica swim and the Discovery Channel programme 'Superhuman Showdown' and now we are letting them all down. Picture: Ram Barkai

Time has come for the medical check, one of the extreme swimmers was disqualified by the doctor with very high blood pressure.

This didn't help our anxiety and heart rate. Kieron went in first and he came out with 'I'm fine, what's now?' Exit strategy one gone. I went in second and came out with flying colours. 'Right, Ryan is our only hope - Ryan went in and stayed, and stayed. Finally I went in to check on him. 'The doc is not happy', Ryan said, 'Blood pressure is very high'.

Ryan had a heart condition we all knew about, very fit and strong but increased risk. The doctor told Ryan to come back in half an hour for another check.

Sense of humour and chirps died.

We found a warm corner and had a debate, what do we do now? I and Kieron decided that if Ryan can't swim we don't swim. If Ryan can swim a shorter distance we all do the same. We came as a team and we stay as a team. The decision was mixed with some possible relief but a strong sense of 'we came here to swim!'. Suddenly from desperately trying get out the swim we all had a strong desire to swim, to face the challenge and show ourselves that we can!

The next half an hour was very tense. Rumours started flying that the SA team is bailing out. We knew that there are very high expectations here. Most knew about our Antarctica swim and the Discovery Channel programme 'Superhuman Showdown' and now we are letting them all down.

We withdraw to our corner, warming our frozen limbs and waiting. Next thing Ryan is called to see the medic again. After a lengthy wait Ryan comes out thumbs up. Great, our mind was getting into the right place now.

'We are swimming and we are going to do it!' Focus and focus - here we come.

Ice swimming in Tyumen, Russia, by Ram Barkai

At -30c everything is frozen in seconds. A female swimmer just finished her 1 km, head up breaststroke and no goggles. Her eyelashes froze and she couldn't open them. Picture: Ram Barkai

The Russians swam first and it was getting colder and colder, it was around 4:00 pm that I was called to swim. The temperature outside was -30C. 

I stood by the pool ready to dive, in Speedo briefs, cap and goggles only to get called inside again. 'You swim later, go wait inside'. What a mind @#$%.

I go in to defrost and wait. Very little conversation, we were very worried about the recovery process, we didn't know how or what - and basically we had to let go and trust the Russian to look after us.

Finally at 4:30pm I was again called to swim. We all decided to do 1 km and that was it. No bravery or heroes, we need to come home alive! Everything outside was sticky. At -30c everything is frozen in seconds. A female swimmer just finished her 1 km, head up breaststroke and no goggles. Her eyelashes froze and she couldn't open them. They basically dragged her to the sauna to slowly defrost her eyes. Moisture in her nose froze solid; breathing was like inhaling wasabi, slow shallow intakes. Any facial hair or long hair exposed to the icy air just froze. The water looked surprisingly inviting at just above zero degree Celsius. Utter madness. 

I dive in and starts swimming, hands and feet freeze so quickly that it almost numbs the pain. Every stroke a wet arm gets out the water in -30C for few seconds. Water conducts heat 25 times faster than air. There is no better way to explain it than the feeling of icy running down your exposed arm. Turning is complicated by the fact that the deck is frozen and a wet hand touching it can literally get super glued to the deck. You can easily leave some layers of skin on the deck without noticing. So touch the sides must be done under water, pushing with the legs, not to hard so the breathing doesn't get jolted. 

One lap, two laps, and suddenly it was 40 laps. The mind is focused in a swim like that.

Like a laser beam excluding any sight, sound or thought that is not 100% related to task of stroking through the water.

When you finish you can't touch anything. You just raise your arm and wait to be dragged out. Skin is bright red almost glowing. By the time you get to the sauna your skin is covered with a thin layer of ice giving the term icing the cake a new meaning. Ryan and Kieron are getting ready, seeing I am doing a 1 km is a doubled edged sword.

I do it and we can all do it, but now we have to do it or we build a new home in Siberia! No way back to SA.

Ice swimming Tyumen, Siberia, by Ram Barkai

When you finish you can't touch anything. By the time you get to the sauna your skin is covered with a thin layer of ice giving the term icing the cake a new meaning. Picture: Ram Barkai

It is after 5 pm, the sun has already gone down and everything is getting even greyer. Temperature dropped to -33C. In the meantime, I am dragged to the dry sauna, getting dried. The sensation of inner cold is hard to describe, chest is tight and mind is in a very narrow tunnel vision of survival. Next is another sauna, a wet one, with three Russian woman in swimming costumes covering me with wet towels and pouring cold and then hot water on them.

That process takes around twenty minutes. 

Unfortunately, we are all circumcised, and the pain is unbearable.  The only way is to grab the bucket of hot water, ask the nurses to turn and pour it on your private parts. Great relief. (We know everyone wants to know so here it is  - so no, it doesn't freeze or get damaged, it recovers 100% and what doesn't kill it makes it stronger!)

I am out, cold but defrosted, in time to see Ryan and Kieron diving for their 1km. Ryan and Kieron decided to swim together, and it is amazing the see the two South African caps ploughing through the ice water like synchronized swimming. The are doing very well, air temperature at -33c, bitterly cold.  

Yes we are all probably certified nutters. Before we know it and Ryan and Kieron have done their 1 km. Looking good the whole way, no way they can let me look so good on my 1 km and not try and outdo me. Ryan, despite his initial high blood pressure comes out like a hero and so is Kieron. They both have that glazed look an ice swimmer gets at the end of the swim. But they are good, they can walk to the sauna with supervision and the heating process starts. 

Ice swimming Tyumen, Siberia, by Ram Barkai

Done!!! Nothing can explain the sense of pride and euphoria after completing such an intimidating challenge. Picture: Ram Barkai

The nurses take buckets of snow like sea sand and rub their skin hard.

It is a painful exercise but it get the circulation going before they get the wet towel and water treatment.

As worried as we were we must admit that the Russian recovery process was amazing. They looked after us covered with sweat non stop. We felt very safe in their hands and it was by far the best recovery we had in all our ice swims. We found out that it is something they developed and improved over the years of diving into ice waters.

Done!!! Nothing can explain the sense of pride and euphoria after completing such an intimidating challenge.

Swimming 1km, in the middle of the winter, in Siberia, at water temperature of zero Celsius and air temperature below -30C. We are so elated and so thankful to the Russians who invited us and supported us with utmost humility through that extreme endurance swim. 

We got so much support from friends and family on Facebook, we felt like 'celebs' in Siberia. Thank you all for believing in us, supporting us and caring for us. Time to go home, back to Camps Bay beach or Brede River to family and kids.

Shorts, slops, icy cold beer or malt... with little ice please.

Comments (5)

we live in Moscow more or less next to the river. every year the -Walrusses- what they call themselves, hack out of the ice a10x10m square , and have a swim. these people don't know what is a cold or flu. and when there is no ice, they go for a swim anyway. but most important thing is, you must do it regularly and of an early age. being 50,jumping into the ice water and hope you will have no cold can get you only one thing... pneumonia!

there is one thing that one can /could do only once. around the 19th January there is the russian tradition of /kreshenie/ (baptism) withe help of a priest,or alone, people dive into the ice cold water,it is being blessed by the priest and one by one the people dive in and dunk once under. old, young, men,women and also kids. though there is an ambulance car there or people who can do first aid. and people themselves maybe first have a check from the local doctor, it they are fit enough to do it.
Benedikt, Moscow,Russia
31/12/2015 15:59
i swam 25 meter in Antarctica off the ice breaker in a swim suit... the captain made me wear a life vest and a rope because he thought i would die !
I swam in lake Michigan last winter when the air was -17 degrees below zero F for aprox 60 meters in just a speedo
Diver Dave, Chicago Il USA
06/02/2015 22:04
Winter bathing is, to me, the most thrilling concept on earth. I first became aware of it when I was 10 (some 57 years ago) and although it was only a vague idea back then it thrilled me in ways I cannot explain. Then I found it on the internet and I have dreamed about it ever since. Needless to say, being in England means I never had the chance to try it, but I yearn for it every day and I am deeply envious of people in places like Siberia who can do it every winter in such extreme conditions. WOW! Of COURSE it should be part of the winter olympics - if I had been born in Russia I would be breaking records myself! You have my respect and envy, God bless.
Tony Thorpe, Burnley, England
26/03/2013 05:08
Proudly south African!
Hester Snyman, Cape Town
24/12/2012 17:57
gosh I feel cold even by looking at them!
Stas, NY
24/12/2012 15:26

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