Ram Barkai Sees Only the Tip Of the Iceberg

Ram Barkai Sees Only the Tip Of the Iceberg

Ram Barkai presented a talk on ice swimming at the 2013 Global Open Water Swimming Conference in Cork, Ireland today. The South African extreme swimmer opened up his highly anticipated presentation by explaining that 62 swimmers have now qualified as an ice swimmer and ratified by the International Ice Swimming Association.

The International Ice Swimming Association rules follow the English Channel rules – using only Speedos, swim caps, and goggles.

We measure our waters [to confirm the water temperature] by 3 different thermometers. I have done some nice swims – or swims that are nearly 5ºC (41ºF). When we follow the rules of the Association, we have an observer and two witnesses. But if you cheat, you are only cheating yourself.


Barkai describes various aspects of ice swimming. “Sometimes during an ice swim, my core body temperature does increase from 36.5ºC to 37.8ºC. There are a lot of things that go around in your body. Sometimes, my body temperature falls to 35.5ºC in a swim, but then after 15 minutes in the warm shower, my temperature falls to 30ºC. We call this phenomena the roller coaster of ice swimming. Ice swims – a mile under 5ºC is a short swim, but it is intense. There is no experiment that shows that your core body temperature to continue to fall. It is important that you memorize the pain when you train.

Five minutes is enough to prepare before you do a longer swim [of one mile]. As everyone knows, it is a mental swim. Ice swimming is all mental. What is slightly different about ice swimming is that things happen very quickly. It feels like you get hit by a brick wall seconds after you start instead of 25 km in the North Channel for explains. Swimming in extreme temperatures makes you feel like your fingernails are being pulled out. In one swim, the water was about 0ºC with the air temperature about -8ºC in Murmansk [Russia]. I check my hands, my feet, my vision when I get into trouble, like swallowing water during an ice swim.

Physical limits are there. This is not a question. But I do not necessarily feel more or less pain than other people. We actually do not know exactly what happens, but we are learning about the recovery. We know that our core body temperature will decrease. But we know more about recovery now. For example, do not lie down or close your eyes during your recovery. When you lie down, you mix up the cold blood from the peripheries with the core. During the recovery phase, most of us sit down or I walk around after an ice swim. Also, do not close your eyes during the recovery. The swim is not over until you feel 100%.

Kevin Murphy once said that the most risky swim was the North Channel. But now it seems that people frequently do it. I am not sure where ice swimming will go, but I am enjoying it now. I think people will be able to do 5 km in cold water. There is not much technology in the sport. I think we are seeing now only the tip of the iceberg.

It is a sport of passion and integrity. We will see you in the ice.


Photo above shows ice swimmer Jackie Cobell (Great Britain, left), coach Giovanna Richards (Great Britain, middle), and International Ice Swimming Association founder Ram Barkai (South Africa, right).

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