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Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Human Mind Is A Powerful Thing In The Open Water

From some people, Africa conjures up images of deserts and pyramids and wildlife. But the landscape ranges from the beautiful coasts of South Africa to the Nile plateau of Egypt, from the seaside in Kenya to the rivers in Gambia.

It is a continent of extremes.

Extremes made by nature...and extremes endured by man.

Fraserburg - a little dam in the middle of a desert in the middle of nowhere in South Africa - is one such extreme, made by nature and endured by man.

It is here that Ram Barkai brought his second edition of the Ice Swim Africa. But 2.0 was all about the extreme. All roads to the Freezerburg as the swimmers called the town were closed due to heavy snow. The wind was howling at 30 knots and the water temperature was ranging from 0.8°C (33.4°F) in the early morning to a high of 3°C (37.4°F) later in the day.

There were 12 swimmers who entered the mile swim with 19 swimmers in the 600m race. Even under these extreme conditions, 9 swimmers completed the mile - sans wetsuit or neoprene - in 1.7°C (35°F) water. 17 finished the 600m in 3°C (37.4°F) water facing 30 knot winds straight in their face.

Barkai described the mindset of these unique aquatic adventurers, "There was one solid common thread among us all – a sheer determination and an amazing focus to swim in these conditions. The conditions were so extreme that I was worried no one would manage. But [this] was a bunch of hard-core extreme swimmers who just swam, swallowing icy water every stroke, inhaling 0°C (32°F) water deep into the aching lungs and fighting the waves to complete their swim."

Watching the water safety team, soaking wet in the rubber duck and howling wind was also remarkable. They looked after swimmers one after another. The medical team was dealing with a conveyor belt of frozen swimmers. The before-and-after pictures tell it all - big brave smiles vs. frozen faces, tight lips, uncooperative legs and an icy daze in the eyes."

On the big day for the mile event, the wind died and the air and water temperatures dipped towards 0°C (32°F).

Unlike other sports, the pain, muscle and breathing discomfort, and fatigue of ice swimming happens right from the start. Barkai described the scenario, "Bang – straight into the deep abyss of pain and discomfort. Some came out with a frozen wee smile and some with a frozen glazed look. However, once dry and dressed under the blanket, everyone had the same look: staring at the abyss of the after drop roll roaster. The recovery is a critical part of every ice swim."

Tommy Kruger was in the second heat of two swimmers. They had to swim out to a buoy 300 meters off shore and back. "I was not at all worried by the chop on the water as I am used to swimming in an even bigger chop in in my farm dam in Grabouw. I was more worried how I would react to the ice cold water. I was expecting to take about 10 minutes or so.

As I dived in, I controlled my breathing reasonably well at first without a problem, but within a few minutes I was struggled to take a breath without swallowing or inhaling water. The choppy water was vicious and breathing to the left did not help. Breathing to the right was even worse. I was still coughing three days later from water in my lungs. I finished the swim in 10 minutes 46 seconds and was able to walk to the medical tent with some assistance. My body temperature was measured at 31.6°C (88.8°F). My recovery was very unpleasant and took about 30 minutes."

Samantha Hucke explained her experience, "Friday morning came with huge excitement and I think even bigger nerves, so I was up before the crack of dawn, piling all my boys into my car and tackling the long drive ahead to Fraserburg. About 30km outside of Fraserburg it was snowing. I was so ecstatic, and then the realization hit me that I am driving to do an ice swim and it is currently snowing. I really was thinking I must have a screw loose to have been talked into doing an ice swim by Tim Stiff.

After an unsettled night of little sleep due to nerves, Saturday morning arrived early at about 5:30. I was in heat 3 and Tommy was in heat 2. I went to the medical tent to change. I was so nervous, my stomach was feeling a little queasy. Marius and Tommy finished their swim and came into the medical tent. When I saw Tommy, I felt such a flood of nerves and insecurity. His eyes were big and he looked straight past me with a vacant stare and it took him a couple of seconds to respond to my question ‘Hey Tommy, you ok? How was the swim?’ He replied “kak”. He was quickly dressed and wrapped in blankets and hot water bottles. I asked him how the swim, on a scale of 1 to 10 was. He said 8.

I was so concerned now as to whether or not I should even bother to attempt this, as I had being training with Tommy for at least six months and he was much older, wiser and a stronger swimmer. If he was taking strain, what chance did I have?

I walked into the water slowly with everyone’s words going through my head, walk in slowly, and breathe slowly, don’t swallow water. The water was almost like I expected, but it took my breath away so quickly, that the next thing I knew I was gasping for air. Struggling to catch my breath and needing to really concentrate I started to swim. I kept bumping into Zani. After the third time, I stopped and waited for her to swim across in front of me so I could swim on. This affected my concentration but I swam on, trying to get my rhythm back and trying to not swallow too much water and trying every now and again to look for the buoy that I was swimming towards.

I stopped a few times to look where Zani and the boat were, and I kept thinking that I really do not want to get pulled out of the water! Suddenly I reached the buoy, and felt so completely relieved to have made it, I turned and headed to the flags on the shore. My hands and feet were completely numb and I was struggling to keep it all together. My arms and legs were moving, but I felt like I was not moving forward, so I looked towards the finish flags and then back to the buoy. The finish flags just didn’t seem to be coming any closer, but at least the buoy seemed to get further way. I stopped swimming quite a few times, a little disorientated and heard the guys from the boat shouting ‘Sam put your head down and swim’ and so I did. I eventually reached the shore in 13 minutes 30 seconds, and started to walk out. Everyone was screaming encouragement, though it seemed a little like a dream.

I went into the tent, got dressed, was wrapped in blankets and covered with hot water bottles and was giving some hot chocolate. My body temperature was around 30°C (86°F). At first, I wasn’t shivering. Apparently shivering would only start once my temperature reached 32°C (89.6°F). Within a few minutes I started vibrate violently from head to toe. My recovery took about 30 minutes. I walked out of there completely overwhelmed, grateful and in awe of my accomplishment. It’s really hard to find the right words to explain the feeling.

I now feel like I have joined an elite band of brothers and sisters and my accomplishment has left me with the thought that I can accomplish whatever I set my mind to, and I suppose being extremely stubborn also helps.

Barkai, founder of the International Ice Swimming Association, will speak on their event and experiences at the 2012 Global Open Water Swimming Conference in Long Beach, California on September 21-23. "I intend to take this extreme sport across the world and hopefully establish ice-swimming events all around. There are plenty of ice swimmers out there."

Discussions will also center around a strategy to get another open water swimming event into the Olympic program. "What is ideal is to create a 1 km swim in the Winter Olympics" - a perfect counterpart to the 10 km marathon swim in the Summer Olympics.

While the 10 km at the Summer Olympics is a test of endurance, tactics and speed, a 1 km ice swim in a mountain lake at the Winter Olympics would be a visually dynamic event that fits the mold of the extreme nature of downhill skiers, lugers and mogulists.

To join in with Barkai and other like-minded extreme swimmers in Long Beach, register for the Global Open Water Swimming Conference here.

For more information on getting ice swimming into the Winter Olympics, read more here.

Copyright © 2012 by World Open Water Swimming Association

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