Monkeys, dancing and medals make for a memorable ice swimming adventure. Jonathan Cowie and Ella Foote take part in this year’s Ice Swim in Morocco.
Think of ice swimming and Morocco probably isn’t the first place that springs to mind. When I told friends I was going to a cold water swimming contest in Morocco I was met with bemused looks. “What? You are going to be swimming in the desert?”
Well, no. The International Ice Swimming Association contest Ice Swim in Morocco may be the only event in the world where you can go from ice to sand in a few hours, but the swimming itself takes place high in the mountains. As I stood on the edge of Lake Aguelmam Azegza looking at the buoyed swim course, I was glad of my down jacket and woolly hat. There is more to Morocco than sand and sunshine, and the air temperature at night was -1 degree while the water temperature, although not cold enough to be officially ice water, wasn’t far off at 6 degrees.
The lake high in the Middle Atlas Mountains, surrounded by cedar forests, is a stunning location. As event organiser Hassan Baraka and his team prepared themselves for the day of competition, we had time to explore the lake shore and meet some of the other 120 competitors (including many international swimmers who, like us, had made the journey for the experience of swimming in such a unique contest). And also meet the monkeys that live in the trees close to the lakeshore!
First up were the 1km and 500m races. Some of ice swimming’s most capable international athletes took to the water, including France’s Marion Joffle, South Africa’s Samantha Whelpton and Great Britain’s James Leitch, competing against a home team of Moroccan swimmers. Each heat had a small number of swimmers to allow the safety team to give them their full attention, and each swimmer had a second on shore to check on their progress. Two post-swim warming tents were a short walk away from the finish line for swimmers to recover in.
Warm up with traditional music
Between races we were treated to some traditional ahidous music and dancing, the singing and rhythmic drumming echoing across the valley. Soon spectators were joining in the dancing, a big circle forming around the band as we moved our shoulders and feet in time with the music. It was a good way of keeping warm and one that I will be introducing to the shores of my local lake!
“I loved the whole Moroccan experience and atmosphere of the event – especially the Moroccan dancing!” said fellow British swimmer James Leitch. “The event was well organised and great to watch.”
Dancing done, I was ready to swim. My first race was my 50m freestyle heat, up against swimmers from Germany, Poland and Morocco. The first challenge was getting in the water – a lack of rain meant that the water level was low, exposing thick mud on the shoreline. But the wallow into the water added to the fun and made for an interesting start to the race! Once in the water all swimmers lined up at the starting line. It was a quick start (to be fair, very quick as some swimmers weren’t quite ready!) and a tussle to the turn buoy so I was pleased (and not a little surprised) to find myself finishing first.
There was a real mix of ability and experience in the shorter races, with many local swimmers trying cold water swimming for the first time. “The Ice Swim in Morocco is an event for amateurs that want to discover ice swimming,” says event organiser Hassan. It was great to see the jubilation and sense of achievement on the faces of the many young Moroccan swimmers who were new to ice swimming (once they had recovered from the initial shock of the cold!).
My final race was the 200m freestyle. Up against French swimmer Guillaume Le Loher, I knew this wouldn’t be another first place, so I was surprised to find myself with clear water in front of me coming into the turn. I found out later that Guillaume had turned too early, at the wrong buoy! As I was marvelling at myself (and wondering where Guillaume had disappeared to) he cruised past me to win the heat.
Swimming over, we were treated to a delicious Moroccan picnic meal (seriously the best event food I have ever had), before the official medal ceremony got under way. The final Team Outdoor Swimmer medal haul was one gold for Ella, a silver and a bronze for me. What an unexpected and wonderful end to a unique ice swimming event. I will definitely be returning to Morocco for more ice swimming adventures and to explore the country. See you there next year!
Plan your trip to Ice Swim in Morocco
Next event: January 2024
Race distances: 50m Breaststroke/Freestyle, 100m Freestyle, 200m Freestyle, 500m freestyle, 1km Freestyle
Getting there: Morocco is well served with flights from the UK. The nearest airport to Khenifra is Fez.
While you are there: Khenifra is a centre of mountain, green, rural and adventure tourism. Leave some time to explore Fez’s ancient walled medina, a fascinating maze of more than 9,000 alleyways.
More information: swiminmorocco.com'Hemispheres' issue page.