Murmansk – it’s in the extreme northwest of Russia, it’s the only city above the Arctic Circle, and it has an average annual temperature of -1°C. It was the perfect place for world-renowned distance swimmer Christof Wandratsch to claim the title of Ice Swimming World Champion.
The world's first ice swimming championships
To claim that title, Wandratsch had to swim a full kilometre in ice-cold (literally, just over zero degrees) water – and do it faster than other people from around the world crazy enough to join him. Swimming one stroke at a time in a pool literally cut from the ice, the competitors battled to keep their limbs in motion as their body’s defence mechanisms drew blood from their limbs to their core, and control of those limbs rapidly decreased!
Prepping for the turn
It’s a challenge unlike any other in the world – the swimmers basically must train to overcome their body’s natural reaction to extremely cold water. When a human first enters zero-degree water, they will hyperventilate, quickly breathing in and out. Getting past the first minute is crucial – after that, normal bodily function returns.
A pool literally cut from ice
But time is limited. There’s a reason the race is only 1km – an ice swimmer is limited to a few short minutes of swimming before immobility sets in and they must get out of the pool. In fact, Christof’s coach is charged with exactly that: it’s his job to help Wandratsch win the title; but also to keep him alive.
Fortunately – he’s done a lot of training, both in Lake Constanz, and, erm, colder places – like on a glacier. “I’ve got special permission to swim in the lake on the Hintertux Glacier,” he says. “I’m the only person allowed to do it. I ski-tour up the glacier, then get in the water for a training.”
Training for torture
While the tools of a swimmer are simple, the training isn’t – Wandratsch is constantly monitoring things like heart rate, speed and skin temperature to ensure safety and improve performance – using things like skin sensors to provide biometric info in real time during practice.
With ice swimming, it’s all about progression – gradually extending the time he spent in the water. According to Wandratsch, your average Olympic swimmer won’t last more than a minute in ice-cold water without training. The best ice swimmers look nothing like your average Olympic swimmer.
In fact, it’s one of the few sports where a layer of fat is actually helpful – it insulates the body and seals in heat – a valuable thing in Murmansk, where temps were even more brutally cold than usual. “The water there is even colder – it’s under a thick layer of ice, maybe 40 or 50cm thick. Water temps at about .7ºC – and when you get out, the air and wind makes it even colder – around -15ºC.”
Training in Murmansk
After their swim, competitors are quickly shuttled inside under the care of doctors who check their vital signs. But for all this? Wandratsch says, “It’s all quite safe. I have a daughter. I only do safe things in training, and never swim alone – there’s a rescue buoy, and someone watching all the time.”
And at the forefront of his mind? Not just surviving – winning. “I never go to a competition and say I’m happy to finish second,” he says. “I wanted to win the world championship.” The heat – or should we say the cold – was on, and Wandratsch delivered, taking home the title with a time of 13:00 minutes, making him the world’s first ice-swimming world champion – and that’s pretty cool.