On Saturday, 21 February 2015, the United States entered the world of international winter swimming competitions with the first US Winter Swimming Championship held in Lake Memphremagog in Newport, Vermont. Hosted by the nascent US Winter Swimming Association and local event organiser Kingdom Games Inc, the event drew more than 40 participants to compete in four events: 25-metre breaststroke, 25-metre freestyle, 50-metre freestyle and 100-metre freestyle.
Members of the Coney Island Polar Bear Club in New York came out in force, as did members of the Nahant Knuckleheads open water swim team near Boston, Massachusetts. Other competitors came from as far away as Latvia, Finland, the United Kingdom and Russia.
Winter swimming hasn’t quite caught on in America, but interest is growing, as the success of the first championship demonstrates. And the chance to participate a little closer to home was a welcome change of pace for Coney Island Polar Bear member and avid winter swimmer Jaimie Monahan of New York. Monahan, who won the women’s 25-metre breaststroke event and placed in each of the three other events, has traveled the globe to other winter swimming meets. “After representing the United States at international winter swimming competitions in Finland, Argentina, Russia and China, it was especially wonderful to participate in the inaugural US Winter Swimming Championship in Vermont. Lake Memphremagog was an exceptionally beautiful setting, and the cold temperatures and beautiful snow made for some warm connections.”
Mark Johnston of Polson, Montana agreed that new friends made the long trip cross-country to Vermont worthwhile. It also didn’t hurt that he picked up a pair of first-place medals in the 25- and 50-metre freestyle events, a second in the 25-metre breaststroke, and a third in the 100-metre freestyle. “The entire experience was awesome, and I am excited to have created several new friendships based upon this crazy sport. Next year’s event is already on my calendar!”
Warm friendliness aside, the air temperature in Newport, which is situated about five miles south of the Canadian border, was so cold it actually threatened the event. Organisers had originally planned to host two events on Saturday and two on Sunday, but the -10 degrees Celsius air temperatures made keeping the 25-metre, two-lane pool clear of ice an epic undertaking all its own. Therefore, the decision was made to condense the event into a single day. For the many swimmers who had signed up to compete in all four events, stacking them tightly into a single afternoon made for a big challenge, but no one required medical attention and the events went smoothly.
Some participants like Monahan and Johnston came to be competitors, but others, like Rena Demeo of Chelsea, Massachusetts, just wanted to spend time with like-minded, cold-water swimmers. The ice miler, who’s a Nahant Knucklehead and a member of the L Street Ice Swimmers, competed in the 25-metre freestyle and says the trip was a fun time away with friends that offered an opportunity to get to know other winter swimmers from around the world. “My only regret,” she says, “is not getting more Switchback,” a Vermont-based beer that’s not available in Massachusetts.
John Coningham-Rolls and Aleksandr Jakovlev travelled to Vermont as part of the International Winter Swimming Association (IWSA) delegation to offer moral support for this inaugural event. Says Coningham-Rolls: “The atmosphere was wonderful and everyone pulled together. The pool was a distance from the changing area but two spectators loaned their cars so that all the swimmers were chauffeured to and from the pool, which was wonderful! At the end of the competition, all the swimmers were nicknamed the ‘41 Pioneers’ as it felt very much like the start of great things to come!”
Whether they were there for fun or for the hardware, a good time was had by all competitors and hats have been doffed in deference to Phil White of Kingdom Games Inc and Cristian Vergara of the US Winter Swimming Association, along with the many hearty workers from the Newport Parks and Recreation Department who helped build the pool. These individuals, along with a small army of volunteers that included several of the competitors themselves, shouldered much of the burden of making this championship happen and pulled off an extraordinary event that promises to grow the sport of winter swimming in America.
Elaine K Howley is associate editor at US Masters Swimming.