An Estonian cold water swimming Odyssey
Outdoor Swimmer reader Rowan Clarke got talked into a crazy cold water swimming adventure.
When I started winter swimming, competing on the world stage wasn’t even a thing. While my friends’ post-baby, mid-life fitness drives took them to half marathons and moon walks, mine had taken me swimming around lakes and down rivers, finding peace and liberty in open water.
After swimming the Dart 10k, I decided to ditch my wetsuit and try to swim through the winter starting in October and seeing how low the temperature could plummet before I couldn’t take it anymore. That was the winter I discovered the agony and ecstasy of winter swimming… and when I met Susie Baker and the South West Seals.
Assembled by Susie and her friend Kim Bird in 2014, the Seals is an informal group ranging in age, ability and dedication. We seek wild swimming adventures across the south west, meeting informally to swim or dip whatever the weather wearing anything from full wetsuits to bikinis, some taking part in ice galas and competitions.
That January, we went to Tooting Bec Lido for the National Championships. I lacked the confidence to compete in an individual event, so I took part in a relay only. But it was a ball, and buoyed up by the fun, talk turned to Estonia 2018, and in the moment, I expressed a passing interest.
Time passed as time does, and January 2018 came around. As the ice over Tallinn Marina hardened, my resolve to skip the World Championships melted. One meeting with the Seals and the irresistible Susie, and I found myself reserving a place in various races and booking flights. It looked like I was going.
It’s worth pointing out that despite my outward confidence, this trip took me well out of my comfort zone. Not only did I have to overcome my apprehension around flying away from my young children to an entirely different land mass, I also had to take myself seriously.
I’ve always been rubbish at sports. A perennial sick-noter in PE classes at school, I didn’t even progress in swim club thanks to my screw kick in breaststroke. My lack of confidence in my body’s ability was compounded by serious issues with the way it looked. The answer? To make myself a joke; to deflect attention by making people laugh; to pre-empt failure by playing the fool – or avoiding challenging situations altogether.
To begin with, I approached the World Championships in character. I got team swimwear printed that asked on the rear ‘Does my bum look cold in this?’. I wasn’t the only one short of confidence, though. While I looked like I had no fear heading to Tallinn, others in my team were more obviously cautious. Some had joined purely for the experience rather than the competition; in fact, two team members had only learned to swim in the past year. Yet, this was the beauty of our team; each of us had our own strengths and struggles, rendering the support we gave each other non-judgemental and absolute.
As the event approached, I did start to take my chances seriously. I had a swimming lesson where a coach videoed my stroke and helped me improve. I even bought a proper racing swimming costume instead of the hilarious team wear. Winter swimmer is a sport where I appear to excel. Able to swim pretty quickly through icy water, I have a high tolerance for freezing cold temperatures. Heading to the championships, I knew that if I tried, I could quite possibly succeed.
And succeed I did. In the 25-metre freestyle at -0.9⁰C, I came third in my heat and ninth overall, despite a rubbish push off. In the 50-metre breaststroke, I conquered my screw kick and finished ninth. Several of my team mates finished in the top 10 for their races too, and while none of us made the podium, we realised that with more training we could set our sights a little higher.
But the experience was not all about trying to win races. The atmosphere was electric, the mood joyful. We met winter swimmers from across the world; chatted with a Russian doctor in a car-come-sauna, Chileans in the sauna tent, Swedes and Estonians in the hot tub, and Austrians in Tallinn’s smallest bar, the brilliantly-named Furry Owl. We went cross-country skiing, tried superb local cuisine and drank the potent Tallinn Vana liquor. We approached each race with a mixture of nerves, excitement and a sense of wonder; we all felt amazed and privileged to be there.
Our final event was the relay. For this last race, the atmosphere had shifted. There were still serious competitors out to win, but for the most part, pure joy had taken away that adrenaline-fuelled edge as we teamed up to cheer each other on for one last blast for the finish line.
But it was our very last swim that underlined our Estonian experience. After the relays, we left the event site and stomped 10 minutes along the sea front, across a park to a snow-covered beach. Following our winter-swimmers’ hearts, we stripped down to become equals, wading through ice floes to skinny dip in the Baltic. In that perfect moment, nationality, size, speed, prowess, age, ethnicity, sex mattered not a jot. We were just humans who love swimming in cold water.
Brought together by this wonderful hobby and encouraged by the formidable Susie, we had the experience of a lifetime. It took us out of our comfort zones and buoyed our self-confidence. It was a true celebration of winter swimming as an inclusive, accessible sport.
Talk among the South West Seals has now turned to next time. The nationals at Tooting Bec in January, and then the worlds at Lake Bled in Slovenia in 2020. Will we train more? Yes. Will we enter more events? I expect so. Will we come home with medals? Maybe. Will we finish with a skinny dip? Definitely!