It’s no secret that outdoor swimmers love a swimming badge. Some of us will do anything to earn one, not least plunging into icy water as part of a winter swimming challenge. And, as the winter swimming community continues to grow, so do the number of challenges.
But there’s so much more to winter swimming challenges than decorative patches for your changing robe. Bringing a sense of community cohesion, purpose and achievement, people take part for many reasons from the altruistic to deeply personal. So, how do you get involved safely?
Polar bears and frostbite
“It’s about community and a sense of belonging,” says Pauline Barker who set up the Polar Bear Challenges in 2017. Her idea was simple: to give her and her friends a bit of motivation to get through the winter together. Winter swimming is very bonding, and having a shared goal allowed Pauline and her circle – which quickly grew to 250 people – a way to swim together, share knowledge and support one another.
Back in 2017, there was one Polar Bear challenge, which was to swim 200 metres twice a month. There are now six Polar Bear levels and six Penguin levels, from the ‘classic’ to ‘Jedi’ (essentially ice-mile training) and they attract more than 3,500 participants from all over the world.
“Polar bears wear no neoprene to reflect the International Ice Swimming Association rules,” explains ice-miler Pauline. “I initially set up the penguins to keep the polar bears company, but there are a lot more people wanting to wear some sort of neoprene. Now the penguins have the same levels as the polar bears. I’m a Ninja Penguin this year because I need my booties!”
The inclusion of neoprene not only reflects the growth in winter swimming in numbers, but also its scope. Not all winter swimmers want to compete in championships or train for ice miles and the increase in winter swimming challenges caters for the social, wellbeing and community side of the sport.
Cue mantras like ‘dips not distance’. The tagline of year-round swimming group Mental Health Swims, this could very well be the watchword for community winter swimming challenges such as the Frostbite Challenge.
Set up last year by Julie Harrington, the Frostbite Challenge is much smaller and gloriously rule-free. It encourages people to set themselves achievable goals and posts fun weekly challenges on its Facebook page, which last year involved fancy dress and finding heart shapes in nature. It also raises money for charity; oodles of it, in fact; £23k last year.
“It made people feel like they were a part of something,” says Julie, who first swam through winter after her son’s cancer diagnosis, helping her cope and raising funds for CLIC. “The weekly challenges brought people together; they were owned by all of us.”
But some seasoned winter swimmers worry about winter swimming challenges. Such growth in winter swimming raises a problem: newbies see people swimming long distances and don’t realise how carefully they’ve acclimatised. A few years ago, new swimmers would have joined seasoned swimmers, picking up received wisdom; now, newbies are starting out on their winter swimming journeys with other inexperienced swimmers.
While Julie’s group is fairly new, the culture of the Frostbite Challenge is about fun with minimum risk. “I monitor the group carefully,” she says, “and if I see someone doing something risky, I private message them to make sure they’re aware. I also share information on safety.”
And the Polar Bear challenge has evolved. The ‘classic’ level is now just about dipping in the water rather than achieving a distance, and participants sign-up in early September in order to start acclimatising with the dropping temperatures. “The reason it opens so early is so I can send out weekly emails about how to cope with cold water,” says Pauline. “It covers everything so that [participants] are ready come November first with the right kit and everything.”
While you can map your winter swimming group on the Polar Bear Challenge website and find supportive groups like Mental Health Swims, it’s not always easy to find established winter swimming groups to join. So, as winter swimming continues to grow, newbies need new ways to tap into winter swimming experience. Winter swimming challenges facilitate this: better they venture into chilly waters under the watchful eye of people like Julie Harrington and Pauline ‘Mama Bear’ Barker than go it alone. What’s more, these challenges bring many fundraising, social and wellbeing benefits. And badges. Let’s not forget the badges.
Five top tips for new challengers
1 Educate yourself on cold water safety
2 Set yourself achievable goals
3 Listen to your body and reduce times or add neoprene if needed
4 Challenge yourself – don’t compete with others
5 Enjoy it – when the fun stops, you stop.