Murmansk, Russia, is cold. It's the largest city above the Arctic Circle. It has an average annual temperature of about 30 degrees. So naturally, it's the perfect home for a world championship swimming competition. Ice swimming, that is.
World-renowned distance swimmer Christof Wandratsch was joined by other hearty athletes from around the world to determine who would claim the title of ice swimming world champion. Spoiler alert: It as Wandratsch. Watch him get it done in the video player above.
To win, Wandratsch had to swim a full kilometer (0.62 mile) in ice-cold — literally, just over 32 degrees — water, and do it faster than everyone else. 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 defense mechanisms drew blood from their limbs to their core.
It’s a challenge unlike any other in the world. The swimmers must train to overcome their body’s natural reaction to extremely cold water. When humans first enter zero-degree water, they will hyperventilate, quickly breathing in and out. Getting past the first minute is crucial. After that, normal bodily function returns.
But time is limited. There’s a reason the race is only 1 km: An ice swimmer is limited to a few minutes of swimming before immobility sets in and they must get out of the pool. In fact, Wandratsch’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 Constance and even 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.”
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 spent in the water. According to Wandratsch, your average Olympic swimmer won’t last more than a minute in ice-cold water without training. And 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 15 to 20 inches thick. The water temp is at about 33 degrees, and when you get out, the air and wind makes it even colder, around 5 degrees.”
After their swim, competitors are quickly shuttled inside under the care of doctors who check their vital signs. “It’s all quite safe," Wandratsch says. "I have a daughter. I only do safe things in training, and never swim alone. There’s a rescue buoy, and someone's watching all the time.”
And at the forefront of his mind? Not just surviving, but 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.