Ice Swimming: The Coolest Sport Around (Videos)

Ice swimming World Championships on March 11, 2019. Photo Courtesy: IISA

By Claire Alongi, Swimming World College Intern.

Swimming is a cool activity, right? For many the image of paradise is being surrounded by a cloud of sunscreen while lazing by the ocean or pool before slipping into the water to escape the sweltering heat. However, competitive swimmers are very in-touch with the reality that swimming waits for no kind of weather, no matter the time of year (well, unless there’s lightning).  

A steadily rising subset of swimming takes the idea of cooling off to the extreme. Welcome to the sport of ice swimming.

What Is Ice Swimming?

Ice swimming is exactly what it sounds like: swimming in very very cold water. The sport has been around for a while, primarily as a cultural and wellness movement in parts of Russia. However, the official International Ice Swimming Association (IISA) was only founded a decade ago by South African ice swimmer Ram Barkai.  Now 61 years old, Barkai has competed in 11 ice miles and 14 ice kilometers in various locations around the world.

Ice swimming can take place in open water or in “pools”.  This year, IISA’s World Championships were held in a 10-lane, 25-meter pool that was created by cutting thick slabs of ice off the top of Russian Lake Semyonovskaya.

 What Are the Rules?

Ice swimming competitions are heavily regulated to make sure that all events are standardized and safe.  Typical ice swimming distances are one mile and one kilometer. Depending on the type of competition, shorter races are allowed in order to resemble events in a typical swim meet.

Aside from distance, temperature is one of the key aspects that defines ice swimming. The temperature must be below five degrees Celsius or below 41 degrees Fahrenheit to qualify.  To test the temperature, three thermometers are submerged in the water for five minutes. All the thermometers must have readings below the maximum temperatures mentioned above.

Strict guidelines regulate an ice swimmer’s ensemble. Absolutely no wetsuits are allowed. Yes, you read that correctly. A regular swimsuit, cap and goggles are the main uniform. Swimmers can wear a safety belt, ear plugs, nose plugs and mouth guard for protection. These are only a few of the rules and regulations. If you want to learn more, click here.

Safety and Risks

Though many ice swimmers herald cold water swimming as a way to deal with pain, depression and other ailments, this sport is quite literally not for the faint of heart.

As you can imagine, swimming in water as cold as ice poses unique health risks. Barkai’s calm demeanor in cold water is the exception, not the rule. Most people’s heart rates spike dramatically due to the adrenaline released from the extreme temperature drop. For someone with cardiac issues, this type of competition could be deadly. Not to mention the complications of SIPE, and more importantly hypothermia.

IISA requires all participants to undergo medical examination and fill out extensive medical paperwork. An on-site medical officer will brief athletes on the signs and symptoms of hypothermia. This same medical officer is also in charge of monitoring swimmers after the race. They watch for signs of hypothermia or other potential health problems before releasing the swimmers.

Freezing Cold Fun and Freedom

ISSA has over 2000 registered swimmers. These few and proud swimmers hail from all over the world to partake in one of the most extreme sports out there. So while ice swimming comes with risks, many enjoy the mental rewards and physical health benefits.

“Swimming cold water has become my passion.  The ice was the icing on the cake. I find the ice extreme.  I’m attracted to extreme challenges. No doubt, swimming in ice is a dangerous sport.  It’s not adrenaline junkie, polar bear type of experience, you actually have to swim one kilometer extremely fast in water under five degrees in just speedos, goggles and a cap.  These are the rules,” Barkai says in the first video posted above.  There’s a passion in his words, a weight. Still, like any extreme sport, many people won’t quite understand the purpose.

But that doesn’t deter ice swimmers or the ISSA. Right now, one of the organization’s main goals is to bring ice swimming into the Winter Olympic Games. Besides, if people can compete in the death-defying skeleton during the Olympics, then it seems that ice swimming should be a shoo-in.


All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

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