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Thursday, December 20, 2012

Swimming In Siberia, Russian Winter Swimming Champs

Mirroring the upward trajectory of open water swimming in general, the discipline of ice swimming is also exploding around the world.

Instead of concrete around a pool or a tropical coastline along an open water course, hardened extreme swimmers are encased in the white outlines of a frozen lake, the frigid boundaries of a river bank or the iced seashore of an ocean.

One of the global catalysts of this growth is South African Ram Barkai who founded the International Ice Swimming Association in 2009 with his swimming partners Andrew Chin, Ryan Stramrood, Kieron Palframan, and Toks Viviers. With specific rules and an acknowledged governing body, new ice swimmers have been challenging themselves around the world in oceans, lakes, bays and rivers. With the growth, the Guinness Book of World Records is considering to introduce Ice Swimming as a new category and, we believe, it is only a matter of time before an Ice Swimming event is added to the quadrennial Winter Olympics.

Russia has been one of the leaders in winter swimming. The vast country, with plenty of frozen territories, has aided in the evolution of the sport. With cold and ice an integral part of their lives, the Russian people have adapted to their brutal winters. Hardened swimmers from Ireland to South Africa flocked for the first time to Russia’s winter swimming championships in 2012. As expected, Barkai, Stramrood and Palframan joined their colleagues from around the world.

The event took place a frozen lake just outside of Tyumen Tyumen. Surrounded by trees caked in a snowy winter ice, the organizers cut two 25m pools in the ice with two lanes each. Wooden decks served as a start platform while the walls of the extreme pool were 1m wooden planks at the edges.

The competition was held over two days. The first day was focused on short swims of 25m and 50m sprints while the endurance swim challenged people on the second day. The facilities where sufficient for safety reasons, but "far from comfort and luxury" recalled Barkai.

A debate arose: 1km or more? "Much easier said than done," smiled the experienced South Africans. "When we arrived at the venue, the outdoor frozen hole carved to precise specifications sent a cold panic down our spines. This winter was 10-15ºC colder than normal. The outside air temperature hovered around -24ºC (-11ºF) on the first day. We had just arrived from Cape Town where summer was in full swing at the beach holiday town. We came from a land where t-shirts and pair of slops does the job. It is impossible to explain how bitterly cold it is to stand at -24ºC with light winds blowing snow and grey cloud cover over the pool - and knowing that we had 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

The South African crew whose expertise in dealing with hypothermia and afterdrop in various International Ice Swimming Association events is second to none got even more nervous when they saw the facilities in Tyumen. "How are we expected to get out after a frozen swim to a wooden sauna 200m away from the pool in -24ºC?!?" questioned Barkai.

When the event started amid loud announcements and cheers, all in Russian, the English-speakers understood nothing but the fact they had to get a medical check. "We were still chirping and maintaining a strong sense of humour to hide the intense chill down our spines. The 50m sprint came and went. It was a surreal experience, changing in the main hall, walking to the pool in slops and our Speedos with one cap and a pair of goggles. By the time the flag was down for the start, we were frozen solid. The swim was so short and intense, we can’t remember the dive or the strokes but we did feel the intense pain in our fingers and our feet."

But 25m and 50m swims had only given a brief introduction to what was in store for the endurance swim on the second day. Yet Day One's experience was beneficial to all. "We felt better and started to psych ourselves for the next day, suppressing an extremely strong urge to drink ourselves silly. The cold and the swim gives one such a rush and sense of health and vigour which is hard to explain unless you have done it," explained Barkai. "The following day we needed to be ready at 8 am to leave to the pool."

While 8 am seems like a reasonable time to depart to a swimming competition, during winter, the sun rises at 10:30 am.

"It was INSANE!" Barkai continued. "We got to the pool at around 9 am without a breakfast and fueled only with a lukewarm cup of coffee. The day was significantly colder at -30ºC (-22ºF). Overnight, the pool had frozen solid."

If the all-encompassing white environs weren't enough to worry the endurance ice swimmers, the frozen towel standing straight up by the pool, left from the day before, was. Like a white flag of surrender, the frozen towel was another stark reminder that Mother Nature had the upper hand in this battle between man and nature. "The intensity of the cold freaked us out. We checked all the safety facilities and procedure again," recalled Barkai. "It was 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."

But in the world of international ice swimming, Barkai internalized the cultural and linguistic gaps. "It was quite arrogant of us to think that we in Cape Town could 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."

But the greater question for the Capetownians was how were they going to spend 20 minutes in the water and swim under these conditions? "It looked like an impossible challenge. While we sat down and had a good chat, people around us started to shorten the distance from a possible 800m or 500m to 150m or 300m. Most of them are also well-known hard-core cold-water swimmers, English Channel swimmers. They literally looked very pale at the thought of the endurance swim. We shared our fears with friends on Facebook and we got the typical male South African responses like 'Stop complaining, man up and do it...' while the South African females were gentler with encouragement like 'You can do it, but please be careful.'"

The medical check was not just a cursory procedure. One of the extreme swimmers was disqualified by the doctor with very high blood pressure. With their hearts racing, Palframan went to get his medical check first and came out with disheartening news. "I am fine. What now? Exit strategy one gone." Barkai went next and, as expected, passed with flying colours. "Right, Ryan is our only hope," was the outcome that gave initial promise. Stramrood went in to see the doctor and stayed and stayed and stayed. Barkai went in to check on his friend. "The doc is not happy. My blood pressure is very high," summarized Stramrood who had a heart condition that elevated the risk of his planned endurance swim. The doctor instructed Stramrood to come back in 30 minutes for another check. "Our sense of humour and chirps died. We found a warm corner and debated what to do now? We decided that if Ryan can’t swim, then the rest of us don’t swim too. If Ryan can swim a shorter distance, then 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."

The team decision gave the trio a sudden rush of adrenalin. Their desperate attempt to get out the swim transformed to a strong desire to swim and face the challenge. "The next half an hour was very tense. Rumours started flying that the South African team was bailing out. We knew that there are very high expectations here." Most of the swimmer knew of Barkai and his Antarctica swim as well as the Discovery Channel program Superhuman Showdown. The ambiance seemed to fall with the disappointment that Barkai and team was letting everyone down. Stramrood was called to see the doctor. After a lengthy wait, he emerged with a smiling thumbs up. "Great, our minds were getting into the right place now: we are swimming and we are going to do it. Focus and focus...here we come."

The Russians swam first as the outside temperature started to drop. At 4 pm, Barkai was called to swim with the air temperature still at -30ºC. Barkai stood by the pool ready to dive in Speedo briefs, cap and goggles. But he was unexpectedly told, "You swim later, you go inside."

"Oh, what a mind @#$%," recalled Barkai. "With very little conversation, we were very worried about the recovery process. We didn’t know how or what. Basically we had to let go and trust the Russians to look after us. Finally at 4:30 pm I was called to swim. We all decided to do 1 km and that’s it. No bravery or heroes. We need to come home alive. Everything outside was sticky. At -30ºC, everything is frozen in seconds."

Just before Barkai was called back for his heat, a Russian woman just finished her 1 km endurance swim, swimming head-up breaststroke without goggles. "Her eyelashes froze solid and she couldn’t open them. They basically dragged her to the sauna to slowly defrost her eyes. Moisture in the nose froze solid. Breathing was like inhaling wasabi in slow shallow intakes. Any facial hair or long hair exposed to the icy air just froze immediately. Yet the water looked surprisingly inviting at just above 0ºC. It was utter madness," described Barkai.

"When I dived in and started swimming, my hands and feet froze so quickly that it almost numbs the pain. With every stroke, a wet arm gets out the water in -30ºC for few seconds. Water conducts heat and cold 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 touching the sides must be done under water, pushing with the legs, not too hard so the breathing does not gets jolted. One lap, two laps, and suddenly it was 40 laps."

Barkai explained his mindset. "We cannot do this swim without a focused mind. The mind feels as if it is like a laser beam excluding any sight, sound or thought that is not 100% related to task of stroking through the water. Once finished swimming you can’t touch anything. You just raise your arm and wait to be dragged out. Skin is bright red. It is almost glowing. By the time you get to the sauna your skin is covered with a thin layer of ice giving the term icing on the cake a new meaning."

Stramrood and Palframan were up next. They felt torn because their teammate had just completed the 1 km swim and they had to do it despite the sun had already gone down. Everything was getting gray as the air temperature dropped yet again to -33ºC. While the duo was getting ready, Barkai's body was dragged to the dry sauna to get dried. "The sensation of your inner cold is hard to describe. Your chest is tight and your mind is somewhere in a very narrow tunnel vision of survival. Your memories from previous recoveries keep surfacing as I braced myself for the after drop roller coaster. Ryan and Kieron were looking after me in the sweaty sauna. It was very comforting, but it was not easy for their own minds."

After the dry sauna, the swimmers were sent to the wet sauna with no questions asked or answered. "You go here..." were the instructions.. Three Russian women in swimsuits cover the swimmers with wet towels and start pouring cold water on the towel in a 20-minute process. Hot and cold using water and wet towels to bring the swimmers back from their hazy after drop world.

Barkai had returned from the danger zone still cold but defrosted in time to see his teammates dive in for their own 1 km. The South African pair decided to swim together. "It was amazing the see two South African caps ploughing through the ice water like synchronized swimmers. The were doing very well despite the -33ºC air temp. It was so bitterly cold and here they are swimming. Before long, Ryan and Kieron had done their 1 km. Ryan, despite his initial high blood pressure, comes out like a hero as does Kieron. They both had that glazed look an ice swimmer gets at the end of the swim, but they were good. The duo walked to the sauna with supervision to get their heating process started."

The post-swim process was something to see. "The nurses took buckets of snow - like sea sand - and rubbed their skin hard. It is a painful exercise, but it gets the circulation going before we got the wet towel and water treatment. As worried as we were, we must admit that the Russian recovery process was amazing. We felt very safe in their hands. 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."

And the internal sense of accomplishment is hard to describe. "Nothing can explain the sense of pride and euphoria after completing such an intimidating challenge. Swimming 1 km in the middle of the winter in Siberia, at water temperatures of 0ºC and air temperatures below -30ºC. We are so elated and so thankful to the Russians who invited us and supported us with utmost humility throughout the extreme endurance swim. We felt like celebs in Siberia."

As the trio headed back to their Southern Hemisphere summer, they never lost their sense of humor. "It was time 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."

For another perspective of swimming over 1000 meters at 0ºC, read Nuala Moore's account here.

Copyright © 2012 by World Open Water Swimming Association

1 comment:

  1. Swim in the icy waters to a distance of more 1000 m is not just hard extreme, but a struggle for survival, and this show is not for the faint of heart ... December 16, 2012, the conditions at the start - the water temperature is 0,3 ° C and air temperature from - 30 ° C to - 33 ° C. In the battle of two Russian giants swimming in the icy water - Alexander Brylin and Andrei Sychev, at a distance of more 1000 m, with a record result, won Andrey Sychev:
    1. Andrei Sychev (Russia, Tyumen) - 2250 m (1:06:15);
    2. Alexander Brylin (Russia, Blagoveshchensk) - 2200 m (1:01:43);
    3. Henry Kaarma (Estonia) - 1650 m (0:25:25);
    4. Nikolai Glushkov (Novosibirsk, Russia) - 1050 m(0:21:18).

    Final protocol (in russian language) see here:


Thank you very much for your interest in the world of open water swimming.

The Staff of the World Open Water Swimming Association

2014 Global Open Water Swimming Conference

Learn more...
Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

2014 Global Open Water Swimming Conference Agenda

Friday, 19 September



Welcome Reception at Mount Stuart House, Isle of Bute, Scotland

Documentary films shown throughout the reception:

Blue Journey-Amerika Samoa – Stronger Together: The Waterman’s Way
(film by Bruckner Chase)

Dancing With The Water, Crossing of Lake Pontchartrain
(film by Wayne Ewing about Matthew Moseley's Lake Pontchartrain crossing)

Bering Strait Swim Chukotka - Alaska
(film by Admiral Konstantin Sidenko about the relay between Russia and Alaska)

The Clean Swim – Hong Kong to Macau
(film about Simon Holiday's Pearl River Delta crossing)

Saturday, 20 September



Registration and Coffee at Mount Stuart House, Isle of Bute, Scotland



Keynote Speech:
Colleen Blair (Scotland) on The History of Scottish Swimming



Christopher Guesdon (Australia) on Multidimensional Roles In The Sport



Colin Hill (England) on Recent Explosion in UK Open Water



Shelley Taylor-Smith (Australia) on The Feminine Code of Achievement - How a Lady from Down Under Revolutionized Professional Marathon Swimming



Simon Murie (England) on Open Water Swimming Holidays: How A New Sector Was Created Within The Travel Industry



Swimming The Oceans Seven
A round table discussion moderated by:
Kevin Murphy (England), with Stephen Redmond (Ireland), Anna-Carin Nordin (Sweden),
Darren Miller (USA), Adam Walker (England), Kimberley Chambers (New Zealand)



Coffee and Break



World Open Water Swimming Awards Luncheon:
with co-hosts Shelley Taylor-Smith (Australia) and Steven Munatones (USA)

Pádraig Mallon (Ireland), 2013 World Open Water Swimming Man of the Year

Olga Kozydub (Russia), 2013 World Open Water Swimming Woman of the Year

Bering Strait Swim, 2013 World Open Water Swimming Performance of the Year

Honoring: Vladimir Chegorin, Maria Chizhova, Elena Guseva, Ram Barkai, Jack Bright, Oksana Veklich, Aleksandr Jakovlevs, Matías Ola, Henri Kaarma, Toomas Haggi, Nuala Moore, Anne Marie Ward, Toks Viviers, Melissa O’Reilly, Ryan Stramrood, Cristian Vergara, Craig Lenning, Rafal Ziobro, Andrew Chin, Jackie Cobell, James Pittar, Paolo Chiarino, Mariia Yrjö-Koskinen, Ivan Papulshenko, Zdenek Tlamicha, Zhou Hanming, Oleg Adamov, Andrei Agarkov, Alekseev Semen, Tatiana Alexandrova, Roman Belan, Elena Semenova, Alexander Brylin, Afanasii Diackovskii, Vladimir Nefatov, Evgenii Dokuchaev, Oleg Docuckaev, Roman Efimov, Dmitrii Filitovich, Olga Filitovich, Victor Godlevskiy, Olga Golubeva, Alexei Golubkin, Alexander Golubkin, Alexandr Iurkov, Oleg Ivanov, Pavel Kabakov, Eduard Khodakovskiy, Aleksandr Komarov, Aleksandr Kuliapin, Andrey Kuzmin, Irina Lamkina, Vladimir Litvinov, Andrey Mikhalev, Victor Moskvin, Nikolay Petshak, Sergey Popov, Vladimir Poshivailov, Grigorii Prokopchuk, Dmitrii Zalka, Natalia Seraya, Viacheslav Shaposhnikov, Olga Sokolova, Andrei Sychev, Alexei Tabakov, and Nataliia Usachaeva [represented by Admiral Konstantin Sidenko and Nuala Moore]



Alexey Salmin Pavlovich (Russia) and Dmitry Dragozhilov (Russia)
on the 2016 Winter Swimming World Championships [film]



Sally Minty-Gravett (Jersey) on Motivating Swimmers



Dmitry Blokhin (Russia) and Aleksei Veller (Russia)
on the First World Ice Swimming Championships [film]



Matthew Moseley (USA)’s Dancing With The Water, Crossing of Lake Pontchartrain [film]



Simon Holliday (England) and Doug Woodring (Hong Kong)’s The Clean Swim – Hong Kong to Macau 2014 [film]



International Swimming Hall of Fame (ISHOF)
and International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame (IMSHOF)

IMSHOF Induction Ceremonies and Dinner
with co-hosts Shelley Taylor-Smith (Australia) and Steven Munatones (USA).

Recognition of International Swimming Hall of Fame honorees:

  • Elizabeth Fry (USA), IMSHOF Honour Swimmer

  • Vojislav Mijić (Serbia), IMSHOF Honour Swimmer

  • James Anderson (USA), IMSHOF Honour Administrator

  • Dr. Jane Katz (USA), IMSHOF Honour Administrator

  • Indonesian Swimming Federation Open Water Committee (Indonesia), IMSHOF Honour Organisation

  • Melissa Cunningham (Australia), Irving Davids – Captain Roger Wheeler Award by the International Swimming Hall of Fame and IMSHOF Honour Swimmer

  • Sandra Bucha (USA), ISHOF Honor Open Water Swimmer and IMSHOF Honour Swimmer

  • Jon Erikson (USA), ISHOF Honor Open Water Swimmer and IMSHOF Honour Swimmer [represented by Sandra Bucha]



International Swimming Hall of Fame (ISHOF) Introduction Video.
Welcome speech by host Shelley Taylor-Smith (Australia)






International Swimming Hall of Fame (ISHOF)
Induction Ceremonies and Dinner with host Shelley Taylor-Smith (Australia)

Recognition of International Swimming Hall of Fame honorees:

  • Mercedes Gleitze (England)
    ISHOF Honor Pioneer Swimmer and IMSHOF Honour Swimmer
    [represented by daughter Doloranda Pember]

  • Dale Petranech (USA)
    ISHOF Honor Contributer and IMSHOF Honour Administrator

  • Claudio Plit (Argentina)
    ISHOF Honor Open Water Swimmer and IMSHOF Honour Swimmer
    [represented by Shelley Taylor-Smith]

  • Judith van Berkel-de Nijs (Netherlands)
    ISHOF Honor Open Water Swimmer and IMSHOF Honour Swimmer
    [represented by Niek Kloots]

  • George Young (Canada)
    ISHOF Honor Pioneer Swimmer and IMSHOF Honour Swimmer
    [represented by the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation]

  • David Yudovin (USA)
    ISHOF Honor Open Water Swimmer and IMSHOF Honour Swimmer

Sunday, 21 September



Registration and coffee at Mount Stuart House, Isle of Bute, Scotland



Nuala Moore (Ireland) on The Mindset of 1000m at 0ºC



Admiral Konstantin Sidenko (Russia)’s Bering Strait Swim Chukotka - Alaska in 2013 [film]



Ned Denison (Ireland) on Swimming The World



Bruckner Chase (USA)’s Blue Journey-Amerika Samoa
Stronger Together: The Waterman’s Way



Rok Kerin (Slovenia) on Lifestyle Benefits From Open Water Swimming



Survey distribution and group photo-taking



Swim at Stravvana Bay, Isle of Bute


The Global Open Water Swimming Conference is a conference on the sport of open water swimming, marathon swimming and swimming during triathlons and multi-sport endurance events.

The conference which has been attended by enthusiasts and luminaries from 6 continents, is devoted to providing information about the latest trends, race tactics, training techniques, equipment, psychological preparation, race organization and safety practices used in the sports of open water swimming, marathon swimming and triathlons.

The conference's mission is to provide opportunities to listen and meet many of the world's most foremost experts in open water swimming, and to meet and discuss the sport among swimmers, coaches, administrators, event organizers, sponsors, vendors, officials, escort pilots, and volunteers from kayakers to safety personnel.

Dozens of presentations at the 2014 Conference at the Mount Stuart House cover numerous aspects of the vast and growing world of open water swimming where attendees can learn and share the latest trends, race tactics, training modalities, swimming techniques, equipment, race organization, logistics, operations, and safety practices for open water swimming as a solo swimmer, competitive athlete, fitness swimmer, masters swimmer, triathlete, multi-sport athlete, administrator, race promoter, sponsor or referee.

The conference was first held in Long Beach, California as part of the 2010 USA Swimming National Open Water Swimming Championships. It has since been held on the Queen Mary in California, at Columbia University and the United Nations in New York City, and in Cork, Ireland. This year in September, it comes to another iconic location, the Mount Stuart House on the Isle of Bute in Scotland.

"The Global Open Water Swimming Conference was started due to the desire and need for athletes, coaches, referees, administrators, race directors, promoters and sponsors from around the world to share, collect and learn information about the growing sports of open water swimming, marathon swimming and triathlons," said founder Steven Munatones. "Other swimming conferences usually offering nothing on open water swimming or perhaps a speech or two, but we thought open water swimming deserves its own global conference. It is great that the community shares its information via the online social network, but there is nothing like meeting other open water swimming enthusiasts face-to-face and talking about the sport from morning to night."

Speakers at the conference include English Channel swimmers, ice swimmers, record holders, renowned coaches, world champions, professional marathon swimmers, renowned race directors, officials and administrators from the Africa, Americas, Asia, Europe and Oceania.

"Because the audience is passionate and educated about the sport and its finest practitioners, the Global Open Water Swimming Conference is also the location of the induction ceremonies for the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame and the annual WOWSA Awards that recognize the World Open Water Swimming Man of the Year, the World Open Water Swimming Woman of the Year, the World Open Water Swimming Performance of the Year, and the World Open Water Swimming Offering of the Year. Special Lifetime Achievement Awards are also occasionally presented to individuals who have made significant contributions to the sport over their career."

Copyright © 2014 by World Open Water Swimming Association

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2014 Open Water Swimming Almanac

An Almanac for Open Water Swimming

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