A winter swimming event held in Slovenia’s picture-perfect Lake Bled: Simon Griffiths reports from the 13th IWSA World Championships.
Picture this: an Alpine lake in winter surrounded by snow covered trees and soaring mountains, a tiny island in the middle, with a church, and an eight-lane 25m outdoor pool built into the lake. The air temperature is below zero degrees, the water is about 5.
Now imagine taking your place at the end of one of those lanes. The referee invites you to remove your clothing and enter the water. Feel the tremors running through your body, the surge of adrenaline. As you climb down the steps, the water crushes you, stealing your breath. You need to get your shoulders under the water before the race can start, so you sink deeper, reluctantly. The hooter sounds, you push off and swim.
The water is heavy, your arms don’t move like they should, you can’t get enough air, your cheeks are in agony from the cold. But you keep going. You reach the end of the pool and despite every instinct telling you to get out, you turn around and swim another length. This one feels like it will never end, but you push on as you have no choice now. Then, as you hit the wall at the end, you’re flooded with relief, but also the strange realisation that maybe it wasn’t so bad.
As you climb out the steps, you’re already wondering if you should have entered one of the longer events. You don’t even feel cold. You start smiling and can’t stop all day. You tell everyone how marvellous it was, even people who don’t speak your language. And, because they’ve all done it too, they agree, even if they don’t understand what you said.
A long-anticipated event
That, more or less, and with variations depending on which races you chose, would have been your experience if you had taken part in the 13th International Winter Swimming Associations World (IWSA) Championships at Lake Bled, Slovenia, from 23 to 29 January 2023.
The International Winter Swimming Association (not to be confused with the International Ice Swimming Association) emerged from Finland to promote winter swimming as a health improving sport and leisure activity following their first World Championships in 2000.
The Winter Swimming World Championships, their flagship event, usually takes place biannually. However, this event was delayed by a year because of the war in Ukraine. The original event was scheduled to take place in Russia in 2020 but had to be cancelled. Luckily, the organisers of the 2020 event in Bled offered to host again.
Outdoor and winter swimming veteran Colin Hill was part of the British team at this year’s event. He won his age group in the 450m freestyle and came second overall in the 1000m open water race. “It was such a fun and friendly event. More than 450 competitors from 32 different countries were there,” Colin told us. “Races were from 25m to 450m in the ‘pool’ plus there was a 1km open water swim. It was a true celebration of winter swimming with five days of racing along with the all-important welcome party and celebration after party! The Lake Bled team were once again incredible hosts after holding the event in 2020.”
Regarding the possibility of confusion between the two federations involved in cold water swimming, Colin says swimmers can ignore the politics. “When you go to the events there are people who happily take part with either federation.”
A warm and inviting atmosphere
It sounds corny, but the atmosphere at these events is incredibly warm and welcoming. Everyone tries to swim as fast as they can to win an age group prize, but that’s not what these events are about. Just head to the after race gala dinner with the singing and dancing and you’ll see how much fun it is to spend time with international swimmers with the same love and passion for cold water.”
And don’t be put off by the ‘World Championships’ designation either. This should be read as an invitation to come and swim wherever you’re from, not a label of elitism. Event distances start from 25m, which almost anyone can do. “In Lake Bled at this year’s World Champs, there were many people who had never taken part in an event before mixing with seasoned winter swimmers,” says Colin.
As well as the World Championships, IWSA organise a series of World Cup and regional events. The next three are:
19 February: Winter Swimming Over the River Meuse, Huy, Belgium
23 February: Memphremagog Winter Swimming Festival, Vermont, United States
24 February: Scottish Winter Swimming Championships, Kenmore, Aberfeldy, Scotland
The next World Championship is scheduled for 2024; venue to be confirmed. Find out more on the IWSA website. This article is from the March 2023 issue of Outdoor Swimmer. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.To see all the online content from the March 2023 issue of Outdoor Swimmer, visit the 'Hemispheres' issue page.