Rethinking What Is Possible In The Ice

Rethinking What Is Possible In The Ice

Courtesy of Ice Swimming German Open, Veitsbronn, Germany.

During the 2018 Open Water Summit at the Olympic Club, International Ice Swimming Association founder Ram Barkai took questions from the audience including a question that specifically stated that ice swimming was irresponsible because of its inherent risk.

I thought Ram eloquently and reasonably answered the question of risk,” said Steven Munatones. “Most people do not realize that there is a greater problem globally with hyperthermia in warm-water open water swims than hypothermia in cold water events – at least since 1999.”

After a decade of ice swimming, Barkai and his ice swimming colleagues around the world have learned a significant amount of how much the human body can acclimate to cold water and how best to implement the rewarming process – especially as the sport becomes more popular and the athletes at its highest (coldest?) echelon continue to push the boundaries of what is possible.

But still there are lingering questions about its safety. “[The 1000m ice kilometer races are] way too dangerous for the average person,” commented John Coningham-Rolls, Vice President of the International Winter Swimming Association, to the New York Times. “Even what we do [450m swims] is dangerous enough. So we have to say that we can’t condone [the ice kilometer swims].”

Coningham-Rolls is correct that that ice swimming is too dangerous for the average person, but the individuals who are getting into ice swimming are anything but average,” observed Munatones. “The athletes are responsible for their own training – just like every other extreme sport or marathon endeavor whether it is mountain climbing or swimming the English Channel. From what I have seen from people training in mid-winter in the Serpentine in London to Germany’s Burghausen, the organizers and ice swimmers are as knowledgeable and experienced in the cold as they are responsible and safety-conscious.

The sport is certainly not for the average person as some swimmers state, but it certainly a niche in the sport of aquatics that is attracting a truly driven and unique individuals who are well-prepared physiologically and psychologically to handle swims up to 1000 meters – and longer – in the cold air and water conditions under 5°C (41°F)

One example of how an individual can transform himself from a typical open water swimmer to an ice swimmer is Germany’s Christof Wandratsch. Long known as one of the world’s best marathon swimmers, he was a force on the professional marathon swimming circuit and did two very fast English Channel crossing: 7 hours 3 minutes in 2005 and 7 hours 20 minutes in 2003.

His reputation in cold water – or lack thereof – was well-deserved. The cold was most definitely not his friend. “I did not like cold water,” admitted the schoolteacher whose performances in the colder waters in Canadian lakes were much less impressive than the warmer waters in more southern venues.

But Wandratsch turned the cold from his Achilles heel to his strength through acclimatization and patience [see interview with Shelley Taylor-Smith below about his transformation to becoming competitive and comfortable in The Ice.]

Not only was Wandratsch able to excel in ice swimming, but he taught and inspired many others, including school children, to learn how to adapt to the cold without problems and with enthusiasm. He did it through a comprehensive step-by-step acclimatization program for both novice and elite swimmers of all ages.

What swimmers and teachers like Christof are doing is so cutting-edge and revolutionary. By all logic and observation, this kind of swimming should not be possible. Considering human physiology as we formerly understood it, there is no way people should be able to swim under these conditions with the water at or below 2°C (35.6°F) and the air temperature even lower,” said Munatones. “But they are proving that human are totally adaptable beings and can be acclimatized to nearly anything, especially with the mindset and enthusiasm that these individuals have for cold water swimming.

In any new extreme sports endeavor, the pre-race safety regulations, the in-competition standards, and the rewarming protocols are ever evolving with the sport under the collective efforts of athletes, physicians, scientists and administrators, but these athletes are really pushing the physiological barriers and psychological limits that humans self-imposed on themselves for millennia. These pioneers are dramatically lifting those obstacles and showing others how far, how deeply, how profoundly extreme athletes can really push themselves responsibly and competitively

Wandratsch is not only involved as an athlete and coach, but also as an event organizer and ambassador of the sport. His signature event is the 5th Ice Swimming Aqua Sphere German Open that will next be held between January 4th – 6th 2019.

He writes, “The ice water swim event in Germany is a must do for any athlete who is searching for an extraordinary challenge. Ice cold, crystal clear water and international participants will provide the ideal conditions and background for a sporting long weekend of fun, action, great atmosphere and loads of adrenalin in Veitsbronn, Franconia.”

Events include 50m, 100m, 200m, 500m, and 1 km races.

For more information, visit

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