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Winter swim events are slowly gaining popularity in our part of the world, and no, I’m not talking about polar bear plunges on New Year’s day, I’m talking actual cold water swimming races. In a pool. In open water. In winter. Brrrrrrr.

My first ice swim event was a fantastic experience and an altogether different challenge than anything I’d ever taken on. The water was icy, the swims were joyful, the camaraderie plentiful. I was hooked.

A few thoughts on how to prepare, and how it all works.

Check it out first…

Most events are sanctioned by a known organizing body (listed below, at bottom of post), and specific requirements for safety are followed by event organizers, but I still want to get a sense if an event is right for me:

  • How cold will the water/air be, or what has it historically been?

  • What safety equipment and emergency responders will be onsite?

  • What rewarming facilities are on site? How close to the water are they?

  • Will there be volunteers to help me as I exit the water?

  • How far will I need to walk in the cold to get to my car or to shelter?

  • Will I be ok to drive home afterwards, or should a book a nearby hotel?

  • Have I qualified to swim the events I hope to register for?

Some of the above info will be listed on the event website, some comes later via emails from event organizers, but I also contacted the event directly to get answers to my questions as well.

First ever winter swim championships in Memphremagog, VT, 2015.

If all looks well, pack a good race kit…

I bring way too much gear, but on the other hand, sometimes safer than sorry. The key points to consider are that (a) I have to stay warm and dry between events, and (b) nothing I use will have time to dry out between swims. With that in mind:

  • swim suits: as many suits as races on any given day

  • towels: same thing, 1 towel per race, medium-sized thinner ones are best for me, just enough to dry off quickly but not so big and thick and to weigh down my kit

  • ear plugs: I brought several pairs, they get lost easily, and I really need them

  • clothing: several full layers, and numerous pairs of warm wooly socks

  • spare jacket, swim parka, or change robe – anything suitable for right after a swim

I also brought:

  • a large wide bag to carry gear down to the pool area, so I could drop my outerwear and shoes into it when undressing to get in the water (IKEA blue bag!)

  • shoes, sandals or boots that can handle the slip of snow and ice, anything that can go on easily once I’m out of the water and get me safely to the change rooms (my swim crocs have ice cleats, yep)

  • food, hot beverages, and water, I make sure I have access or bring along my own, I don’t want to swim cold without being warmed and well-fueled

  • extra swim caps from my masters club, exchanging them or giving them to any friends I meet along the way is fun

  • country/province/state flag, if the organizers are mounting them and don’t have yours

The more organized my kit bag is going into the swim meet, the better off I’ll be later. I separate my gear for each race and pack it into separate plastic bags: towel, suit, dry layer, woolly hat and socks. This way, I only have to grab the right bag before each race and I’ll be able to go get ready without rummaging around or making decisions about what I might need next.

The changing area can be quite busy, with many people and little room for lots of gear. Our car was parked onsite, only a few minutes away from the changing area, next time we’ll use the trunk as a holding area for some of the gear. Maybe take in the morning’s gear but leave the afternoon’s gear there and just swap it out over lunch. It would also be just as easy to ditch the wet towels and suits in the trunk instead of trying to pack them back into my kit bag and keep it all separate from dry gear.

It’s different than an indoor swim meet…

Protocol for outdoor winter swim races can vary from event to event, but generally follow pretty much the same principles:

Even if the weather is warm(ish) and the sun is shining, swimmers typically wait inside an indoor holding area as to not get too cold between races. The line-up of swimmer pairings for each race is posted somewhere, and each pairing is called up to stand in waiting just before their race. Pairings, also referred to as “heats”, although at an ice swim that word only garners silly giggles from swimmers.

When signalled, swimmers then walk out to the pool and check in with the clerk of course or with the timers in their assigned lanes. They want to make sure they’ve got the right people in the right lanes. If there are volunteers on hand to assist swimmers, now’s the time to quickly discuss what would need to be done for me (usually: help me wipe off my wet feet and get them into shoes, towel off my shoulders and back, pull on my swim parka and mitts).

Next, the starter calls swimmers to the ready. There are three steps: (1) start undressing (not always called out, check with organizers), (2) step down into the water, and (3) start the swim. These steps are done somewhat in unison, so no swimmer is left waiting in the cold for others.

The swim itself follows basic pool swim meet rules, with a few exceptions:

  • no diving in, instead one hand holds the back wall

  • no flip turns, and no pushing off under water

The rules are there to ensure swimmers don’t push off in the wrong direction and end up under the ice by accident, which could happen (bad enough my flip turns in a pool are abhorrent, ask anyone in my lane).

At the end of each race, swimmers will often high-five or shake hands, to congratulate each other on a swim well swum, you don’t often see this in a pool meet. It’s fun, and a good way to encourage the new friends you’re making, even if you are competing against one another. If we’re too far apart, or I’m really cold, if I really have to get out right away, I will.

If volunteers are on hand, they’ll help you afterwards. This could be anything from towelling you off, dressing you, or bringing you back to the changing area. Depends on the event, best to check in first to get an idea of what’s being planned as support for swimmers.

Coming back to clothing, what I wear down to the pool depends on how the weather is. I started out by putting my onesie on as soon as I got out of the water, but even though I’d towelled off, water from my bathing suit dripped down my legs and into the footies. My feet were wet and cold the whole way back to the changing area. A footless onesie would actually have made more sense. But I realized by the next race that most people simply put on their swim parkas and shoes, and nothing else until they were back in the changing area. I had worried about being too cold on the walk back, but if the weather suits it, there’s really no reason for me to put on anything more than a swim parka as my main outer layer.

Once back in the changing area, I warm up in the showers and get dressed immediately into my next set of dry swim suit and onesie/warm layer, and wait for the next event.

Some events hold a “best in hat” competition for the breaststroke swim, I think it originates with the Brits, it’s a lot of fun and a great icebreaker. Yours truly, as Wonder Woman:

When travelling to a meet outside my home country, I think it’s important to bring along a piece of home. It helps highlight my country’s presence at the event but also makes it easier to connect with other people. I’ve got everything from country flag hats, swim caps, towels, flags, and temporary tattoos (hey, dorky but fun!).

Finding competitive cold swimming events

A search of google and Facebook would probably also identify other swim events in your area. The Outdoor Swimming Society and Did you swim today? are both great places to ask around.

Just go for it. What fun!

US National Winter Swim Champs, January 26th 2016, New York

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