Exploring Extremes, Swimming In Siberia

Exploring Extremes, Swimming In Siberia

Ram Barkai, Ryan Stramrood and Kieron Palframan will be heading to Siberia in mid-winter for a swim in a frozen river.

Without their fellow International Ice Swimming Association co-founders Toks Viviers and Andrew Chin, the 3 South Africans are heading to a town called Tyumen to join many other swimmers coming from around the world to an extreme ice swim.

Tyumen is the oldest Russian settlement in Siberia founded in 1586 to support Russia’s eastward expansion. The city has remained one of the most important economic outposts of the Ural Mountains with easy access to navigable waterways.

Tyumen is land of extremes with long, cold winters with unpredictable weather and an average January temperature of −16.7°C (1.9°F), with a record low of −50°C (−58°F) in February 1951. The current temperature in Tyumen varies from -26°C to a high of -10°C mid-day. “Not too bad,” said Barkai.

Russia is one of the leading countries when it comes to winter swimming and its annual championships in Tyumen have grown significantly. With the growing interest in extreme swimming throughout Russia and around the world, Tyumen’s extravaganza has become one of the pinnacle winter swimming events in the European winter.

Two world records were set in Tyumen: The first was the length of time spent in the water and the distanced covered. The second was the number of participants swimming in one extreme swimming event. With that notoriety, a few hardened South Africans decided to represent their local community and join in with the Tyumen event.

Barkai, one of the three living Antarctica swimmers (along with Lynne Cox and Lewis Pugh), has worked to bring together the extreme swimming championships in Tyumen and the International Ice Swimming Association.

Leaving for Russia this weekend, Barkai humidly recalls his coldest swimming experience in a Norway lake in 2012. “The water temperature was at 0°C with an air temperatures -10°C or colder for 23 minutes covering 1.3 km. It is not easy to cover distance in such cold temperatures.”

He also recalled his most difficult extreme swim with his friend Andrew Chin. “It took 45 minutes to swim 2.3 km in Lake Zurich in the mid-winter of 2009 with air temperature at -7.5°C although the water temperature was a balmy 4°C. The last 10 minutes were a severe strain on my body. I could not feel or control my hands at all. They were basically frozen solid. I was lying very low in the water because I was tired, moving slowly and not floating well. My chest was so tight that I took deep heavy breath on every second stroke, apparently it sounded like I was drowning. What kept me going was the doctor’s eyes. He kept a watchful eye on me. Every stroke I took I felt safe seeing his thumbs up and his eyes saying ‘you are good!’

I have never swam in such a combination of water and air temperatures. Many swimmers can swim 25 meter. Some can swim a little bit more and some will push themselves to 400 meters while m a selected few will attempt a 1 km. Then comes the raw extreme hard-core ice swimmers. These are only a handful of swimmers around the world who try to swim further distances and spend as much time as they can

The record distance is 2.1 km (1.3 miles) done in 56 minutes. “This distance should be swimmable and in a faster time; however, breathing -10°C when swimming in 0°C which is a scary challenge. The cold water is significantly denser than warm water. The ice cold on your skin puts you in some form of controlled shock. You have to breath slowly, no panicking, not over breathing and most importantly not breathing too deep. Remember you are inhaling -10°C.”

The recovery is like an out-the-body experience,” says Stramrood. “It is a sensation of a horrible loss of control while your warm 30°C blood mixes with your cold 4-8°C that flows in from your extremities, all the way back to your heart and brain – the after drop. So pushing the limits in a swim like that also pushes the recovery time and process. However, as mad as it may sound, this can be controlled and managed and once you have recovered, you are on the top of the world – no doping or any illegal or even legal substances – just you and your mind.”

It is going to be a mind-blowing experience,” says Palframan. “We have to be very careful with the risks of such extreme swim, however we are very excited. We are not sure if we will attempt to break Andrei’s record and we remind ourselves to remain humble is such situations. However, this mad sport of ours is growing around the world with various ice swimming (swimming of a mile in under 5°C events happening in the U.S.A., UK, Estonia, Scotland, Sweden and Russia this year. It binds us with people from different places around the world, and it gives us a special insight into these places and cultures. It has also created some amazing friendships.”

SIBERIA ICE-SWIM from Sean Mac an tSithigh on Vimeo. Copyright © 2012 by World Open Water Swimming Association
Steven Munatones