Featured,  View from the Water

The Pied Piper of Cold Water Swimming

Last Saturday South London Swimming Club hosted the bi-annual Cold Water Championships at Tooting Bec Lido. Around 600 people turned up to take part in individual 30m dashes across the width of the pool, team relays or a staggering 450m endurance swim, which took competitors between just over 5 to almost 16 minutes. You don’t know who to applaud more: Colin Hill for his speed or Kate Webb for withstanding the 2 degree water for more than a quarter of an hour.
At H2Open we’re often asked for and we frequently dispatch advice on cold water swimming. But, until last Saturday, I personally had no experience of voluntarily swimming in near ice-cold water. Everything I knew was theoretical, culled from reading and editing the many articles and commentaries that experts and those with more experience had written for us. My view was that cold water was something best enjoyed by other people. I’ve had a long-standing dislike of it since falling out of a kayak in the River Wye in winter. I purposely didn’t enter any of the races at the Cold Water Championships and fully intended to stay dry so that I could report on events while safely cocooned in multiple thermal layers.
A few days before the event Bryn Dymott, who featured in a previous blog post, called and said, “I really think you should go in. Bring your kit. I’ll come in with you and make sure you’re OK.”
Now, when a cold water swimmer tells you “you’ll be OK”, it’s not the same definition of “OK” that most of the population use, but let’s put that aside for a moment.
So, I took along my swimming kit but didn’t really expect to use it, especially after seeing the igloo on the common, the ice on the changing room roof, the snowman overlooking the pool and the looks on the faces of the first swimmers to take the plunge. I hurried back to the warmth of the marquee to sell subscriptions and to talk to people confidently about cold water swimming instead.
The day wore on. Bryn didn’t show up but lots of shivering people wrapped in thick coats and clutching mugs of hot soup passed by to tell me how wonderful the water was. I agreed heartily and began to think I was safe.
But Bryn did come, and asked loudly, “are you ready for that swim?”
No! I thought.
“Yes,” I said. There were a lot of people watching.
“You’ll need to hurry then. They’re clearing the pool soon for the endurance swim.”
I was shaking before I got near the water, and not from cold. I know how much stepping into 14 degree water hurts your feet, hands and face if you’re not used to it. I expected this to be many times worse. But, throughout the day I’d watched everyone from 12-year girls to 70-year old men, of all shapes and sizes, swim across that pool so I knew it could be done.
I decided speed was the best approach – no testing the water with my toes or fingers. I climbed straight down the steps, dipped my shoulders under the water and…
And not much really. It didn’t hurt. It didn’t particularly register as cold. My mind raced through all the things that I thought were supposed to happen: cold water shock, sharp intake of breath, sense of panic, blood supply to the extremities shut down. Perhaps I’d been reading too much and doing too little. This was fine.
I started to swim: head-up breaststroke to start with and then front crawl, with my face in the water. No face-freeze or ice-cream headache – perhaps it’s easier to swim at 2 degrees than 14.
Then it hit me. “This is cold, this hurts, and why aren’t I breathing?” I stopped, put my feet down and let go of the breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding. I contemplated getting out immediately at the side, but too many people were watching. I looked back, saw I was in the middle and wasted valuable seconds trying to decide whether to return or go on. I went on, this time remembering to breathe, but the swimming was no longer easy. I scrambled out and raced to the sauna where I sat with lots of other people congratulating themselves and each other on braving the water.
It was about 20 minutes later that I started to shake, when I wanted steady hands to take pictures of the endurance swimmers. By then I was already wondering whether I could have swum two widths…
Later I told the story to another swimmer and she said, “ah, Bryn, he’s the Pied Piper of cold water swimming.”
How true.