How Cool Is That?  Swimming At The Bottom Of The World

How Cool Is That? Swimming At The Bottom Of The World

Antarctica is Earth’s southernmost continent, surrounded by the Southern Ocean and encapsulating the South Pole. It is a white, cold place with about 98% of it covered by ice that averages at least 1 mile (1.6K) in thickness.

As the coldest, driest, and windiest continent, Antarctica has no permanent residents; only scientists and support personnel in research stations scattered across the continent. Under such conditions, only cold-adapted organisms survive there, including for brief periods of time in the water, three of the most amazing humans on the Planet Earth: Lynne Cox, Lewis Pugh and Ram Barkai.

Nearly 200 years after Antarctica was first sighted by a Russian expedition, it took famed extreme swimmer Lynne Cox of Seal Beach, California pioneered plunges into the cold, dark Southern Ocean in 2002.

Lynne swam 1.2 miles from the ship Orlova to Neko Harbor in 2002 in a time of 25 minutes flat in 2°C (35°F) waters.

Lewis Pugh followed in 2005 when he swam for 30 minutes in Deception Island in sub-Antarctica in 2005 in the 2°C (35°F) waters of the Southern Ocean.

Ram Barkai (shown on left) is the latest adventurer when he swam 1 km in Long Lake, just over 70° south, near Maitri, the Indian scientific research station in 1°C (33.8°F) waters.

The three pioneers are not only unique in their mental outlook and physical abilities, but they also have the story-telling flair for presenting their stories with quiet drama and help people understand the trauma and toil they encountered along their path to swimming in the extreme south.

They all have the ideal mindset to mentally ignore the reality of the frigid conditions and get on with their goal of swimming without wetsuits or a neoprene cap. Traditionally, as swimmers do in the English Channel or their neighborhood pool. “If you focus on the cold, then you’re focusing on something that’s not helping you get to where you need to get,” explained Cox.

You put your toe in and you think, Ehhh, maybe, maybe not. Well, if I do that, I can’t get in the water,” describes Pugh who penned his autobiography Achieving The Impossible. “It’s like going into battle. I have to get myself really revved up, seriously aggressive. I dive in, and there’s only one place I’m getting out — and that’s at the end.”

Barkai similarly talks about the battle between himself and the elements. “As martial artists say: ‘the best place to be is behind your enemy’s sword’. When you hit the water you have to swim but the cold temperatures are invigorating and refreshing. Cyclists are above the elements, runners own the elements but swimmers are with the elements feeling the water, drinking the water and becoming immersed in it.”

The whole experience was surreal. I don’t consider myself superior in any aspect. This experience proved to me that swimming in the most extreme conditions is possible with the correct preparation. Preparation is critical and understanding your body reaction and function under these conditions is also crucial. The rest is all in your mind…”

Besides their focus and mental strength, they are all unique physical specimens. While the trio survived and lived to eloquently tell their stories, Professor Bill Keatinge of the University of London knows that other humans who die within minutes of hitting the Southern Ocean. Hearts would stop, the pain would be unbearable and muscle failure would be immediate.

The whole beating of the heart goes completely adrift,” explained Professor Keatinge. “In technical terms, ventricular fibrillation. Then, you’re dead in a matter of minutes.” Tim Noakes, director of the Sports Science Institute of South Africa and a member of Pugh’s support team knows what his friend faces. “Most people would die very quickly. Lewis has a unique ability.”

In their presence and through their written and spoken words, people are drawn to these extreme athletes. They speak powerfully and colorfully, intelligently, and intensely. Their measured approach to their swims and the inherent risks they face is scientific and factual. Their calm demeanor leaves nothing to chance as they surround themselves by experts and professionals.

Because much of their preparation is within their own minds, they can retell the stories of their exploits well. “When I’m preparing for a swim, I imagine absolutely everything about it: the color of the water, how cold it is, the taste of salt in my mouth. I visualize each and every stroke,” said Pugh. “I knew I’d be in the water [in Antarctica] for about 30 minutes, and I can’t tell you how many times I imagined those minutes, right down to every iceberg I would swim past.”

After being inspired by Cox, Barkai imagined what he would face, but it was another thing all together when he actually started. “After I dived in, my skin went numb immediately and then came the burning pain and piercing headache. Breathing was one of the most difficult tasks. Taking in sub-zero air under these conditions can cause panic very quickly. I also had to be careful of shards of ice which can be extremely dangerous if you swim into them.”

However romantic and dramatic an extreme swim appears, it is never easy no matter how well prepared physically and mentally you are. “When you first jump in, your skin is absolutely burning. You also experience massive hyperventilation, so coordinating the breathing with the swimming stroke is really difficult. Because I swim the crawl, I often gasp in a little bit of water,” said Lewis. “After five or ten minutes you start losing the feeling in your fingers and toes, and as it slowly moves up your legs, you notice how inefficient your stroke is becoming. Then you have this feeling of miserable, aching cold, deep inside you. That’s probably a good time to get out.”

They all describe how the re-warming is equally important as the cold water acclimatization before. “When I started the Antarctic swim, my temperature was 38°C (101°F). When I stopped, it was about 36°C (96.8°F). In the cold, all the blood rushes to your core to protect your heart, lungs, kidneys, liver, and brain. When you leave the water, the blood rushes back to your arms and legs, absorbs that freezing cold, and brings it back to the heart. As soon as I got into the boat, my core temperature plummeted to 33°C (91.4°F). We then stabilized it and brought it back up again.”

Cox similarly described her experiences in her book Swimming to Antarctica, considered the inspirational blueprint that others – of all ages and backgrounds – have followed for their own goals.

The open water swimming community, indeed the entire sporting world and general public, are fortunate to have these three individuals in our midst. Their stories and exploits are inspirational and educational. They leave nothing to chance. They prepared well mentally, physically and logistically. They established their goals, remained focused and surrounded themselves with those who helped protect and push them.

Lessons to learn by those in the northern climes.

Copyright © 2011 by Open Water Source
Steven Munatones