Finally, it was time to set off to the third World Ice Swimming Championships in Murmansk, Russia after months of planning, packing and organising the luggage and journey. So before this point I had casually mentioned to my mum that I had entered her into a swim for the 50m breaststroke…At this point my mum wasn’t sure, but I had time to persuade her to have a dip.
Kit tips and essentials to pack: Full ski gear for after your swim (coat, trousers and winter snow boots – even in the UK); funkiest swimming costume you own; silicone swimming hat; favourite goggles (kindly provided to us by Zoggs); antifog goggle spray; Swim Secure tow float (when training in the UK I use a tow donut, when competing we take the inflatable off and just wear the waist belt so that if we are in trouble, people rescuing us can grab the belt and pull us out easily); a nice warm changing cloak – we were sponsored by Charlie McLeod who provided us with some brilliant personalised cloaks – thank you; Big Bobble Hat; a flask or travel cup with your favourite warm beverage (I like gingerbread green tea); and some crocs or other plastic ugly shoes that you can stuff your feet into properly.
Mum and I flew from Heathrow to St Petersburg with members of the GB Ice Swimming Team, then took an internal flight to Murmansk where we were met by an extremely friendly welcome party. At the hotel we met our wonderful interpreters, language students from the local university - our Russian is next to nothing, so we needed them! We had the lovely Nastya who had wonderful English and helped us to sort some issues along the way.
Plan for the day was to have an acclimatisation dip. We got public transport and headed to the Walrus ice hole in the lake. At the ‘ice hole’ we met he German team who greeted us with cries of “Ahhh welcome, Team Brexit!” and they showed off their incredibly small budgies and posh tracksuits.
This was both physically and mentally challenging. The water was reading less than 0C and the air temperature was in the minus double digits. Whilst I had completed two ice miles in the UK, this water was less 0C, and the coldest I had swum in. I knew that if I could do this, then I could swim my first race prior to the important one, the 1000m. The water temperature read less than zero, -0.6. The air temperature was in the minus double digits!
When in the water the feeling was almost unbearable. I have never felt anything like it. It felt like someone was stabbing me with needles all over my skin and I instantly lost the feeling in my hands. In my head, I had my doubts that I would be able to do the swims I had entered. I did a couple of head up breaststroke ‘faffs’ in the ‘ice hole’ and then tried to put my head in. It was next level ice cream head and I the pain was unbelievable but once I got used to it, it was okay!
The Walrus Hole had a lovely warm changing room and whilst we changed, a friendly local lady joined us. She had been cross country skiing and was preparing to ‘snow and ice bathe’. Even with the major language barrier, she offered me some of her local tea and we had a laugh about my levels of shivering and dithering. My mum came into the changing room and quietly asked me if I thought that she could have a go! I lent her my robe and she went out to the icy steps at the hole, followed by Colin Hill and his camera which was rolling... As mum was being unexpectedly filmed, there was no way she would have been backing out of the challenge!
In the afternoon we were taken for a tour on “Lenin”, the nuclear ice-breaker ship, where we met team members from other countries. We loved the clothes worn by Mr Team Mongolia!
We all travelled by bus to the lake with the competition pool and to the leisure centre where the teams were hosted. Visiting the leisure centre which was the base for all swimmers and the swimming venue gave us the opportunity to get used to the facilities, and to take a test swim in the competition pool which had been cut out of the frozen lake with a chainsaw! I got in and swam 6 lengths which was really useful to understand how the walls were underneath the water. There were wooden steps into each lane at both ends of the pool, timing pads and at the bottom of the pad there was a wooden board with a lip underneath. It was good to get used to the lip under the water because it made it difficult to push off the wall. Tumble turns are not permitted in the ice; the training swim meant that I could understand the pool before my first swim the following day.
Later in the day we attended a briefing and press conference organised by our hosts, where we were given full details about what to expect, the safety and medical procedures for the event and for our ‘seconds’ (people who stand at the end of the lane whilst we are swimming to keep a close eye on our stroke rate and condition in the water). We were also given the instructions for starting each race which made us all chuckle; “Take off your clothes, prepare for entry, enter the water… there is a gun!
First race day! The 500m freestyle, 200 freestyle and 100 breaststroke were scheduled for this morning. I ‘seconded’ my fellow “Brummy” teammate Mark Guest for this 500m which he smashed! I made sure that I was looking out for his stroke rate and that he was comfortable whilst he was swimming. Seconds are so important for ice swim racing because they can detect a problem if the swimmer hasn’t realised that they are in trouble. The ice can affect our brains so much that a swimmer can go from being absolutely fine to delirious in a short period.
Following the first event, my teammate and seasoned ice swimmer Rory Fitzgerald took part in the opening ceremony around the pool where special loaves of bread were handed out as a sign of hospitality to be shared between team members. Rory paraded the flag around the pool and we shared the Russian loaf as a team later on. It didn’t last long!
My first event followed the opening ceremony. I had entered the 200m meaning I had to swim 8 lengths of the ice pool. This entry was mainly for my head; if I could do one fifth of the swim then I knew I would only need to replicate this swim four more times. It helped me to get used to the conditions and the pool structure as well as my strategy for getting in and out of the pool. Before the event we were marshalled in the main building, then we walked to the pool in our cloaks and boots. We were briefed in the tents before our event and my lovely interpreter Nastya came with me to help with translation. Following this final briefing we headed to the pool. I waited for the commands… “take off your clothes; enter the water”. Once everyone had their shoulders under, the gun was fired. This race was my first experience of anything this cold. It was over in a blink. The nicest part for me was the picture that was sent from home. My colleagues from MK2 Real Estate, to whom I am eternally grateful for the help they gave me to get here, had streamed the event and watched it in the office! It was brilliant to have their support back at home, and that they had taken the time to watch my ‘crazy swim’.
I was really happy with my swim. I had survived, and I had a better idea of what was to come the next day.
This was the day of the big race, the 1k Ice Swim. The water temperature was reading zero and the air temperature thankfully had crept up to zero and it was beginning to snow. We had to arrive at the leisure centre early to pass a medical, without which we were not allowed to swim. The medical was the most surreal experience because most of the doctors and nurses performing the ECGs and medicals spoke little English and my interpreter was not to hand. I could feel my blood pressure increasing waiting for my ‘Da’ (yes), confirming that I could compete. We were taken into an area at the back of the hall, had our blood pressures taken and then taken into the rear of the room for an ECG. These are totally different from the ones in the UK and do not use comfortable stickers but rather uncomfortable metal ‘suckers’. Having to pull down our costumes to have these suckers attached was more painful than I was expecting..! The machine printed out and I received my ‘Da’.
Heidi, Jade and I were in the same heat, representing GB, in our respective age groups. In the marshalling area our kit was checked.
We can wear only one swimming costume, a hat, a pair of goggles and a Swim Secure tow float waist strap for events like these. The waist strap is for safety reasons; it means that if we do get into any difficulty, rescuers can grab onto this to pull us out of the water quickly. We do not wear the inflatable part of the float as it would hinder our swimming when turning. Between heats, each lane was cleared of ice by using fishing nets, because the surface froze over rapidly. Each swimmer had our “second” who stood at the end of the pool to make sure the lap counters were turned, and that our stroke rate didn’t drop. Mum was my second, and she shouted at me throughout the race to keep me focused. The race itself is a distant memory; I vividly remember the first 10 lengths of the swim and the last two and the elation I felt once I had completed the race. There was plenty of entertainment going on by the side of the pool, in spite of the freezing temperature. Bizarrely, musicians played whilst races took place which you could hear whilst you were swimming. This was great to help you keep going. I was pleased to finish in under 15 minutes, as the fastest woman in the GB squad. Now this is where the importance of the right kit comes into play. I have been a firm hater of crocs all of my life; “the reason crocs have holes is because that is where your dignity leaks out”…but now I take it all back! When I got out of my race, my feet had swelled, and the wetness meant that I could not get my shoes back on. I knew I had a limited time to get up to the recovery room and I seriously began to panic. Jade’s second David had to carry me up to the main building so that I could start the recovery process and I want to thank him for that. David Calderwood, thank you for carrying me and for keeping my dignity intact. I have now invested in some crocs..! I advise anyone new to winter swimming to invest in some ugly plastic footwear which will slide on easily.
The Russian winter recovery room is like a military operation. It is manned by incredible people in their swimwear, who have practised this technique for years. You are bundled into the pre sauna room where everyone is sat down with their hands and feet in bowls of cool water. Once this feels cold it is swapped for a warmer bowl. You have most of your swim wear removed and you get wrapped in warm wet towels which are repeatedly changed. There were people in the shower continually reheating the towels and the women on duty changed these on the swimmers. Towels were flying round the room at an incredible rate. I was given some warm tea, and once my shivering stopped, I was allowed in the sauna. This was the first time I had experienced the Russian ‘rewarm’ and it is vastly different to our method of lots of layers and warming from the inside out.
In the evening, we all attended the closing ceremony, very much like a mini Olympic Games ceremony, where each team processed along a stage, following the nation’s flag. We had entertainment from live bands, acrobats and a really good party.
An award ceremony was held in the evening to present the age group medals for the 1k swim. I was pleased to receive a silver medal in my age group: I have to go to work every day, train in my spare time, and take time off work to compete, whereas the winner, from Argentina, is a full time athlete! The GB squad gained medals in most age groups.
This was the day of the inaugural Arctic Cup races. I took part in the 50 freestyle and butterfly events, and Mum took part in the 50 breaststroke. I had entered her for a race as a bit of a joke, but she took it seriously, saying she wouldn’t have travelled all the way to Murmansk with a race entry not to use it! I had entered a very slow time for her, because the last time I had seen her swim, she wasn’t the quickest! I was more nervous about her than I was for myself, but she did it, and had never swum in a race in her life before!
I was also honoured to be the ‘official leg bearer’ for Jonty Warneken, the first disabled ice miler ever (swimming a mile at less than five degrees in just swim togs). Jonty was competing in the 50m freestyle event and his left leg is amputated below the knee.
After the individual races, teams took part in 4x250m relays. Each team was required to have at least one female amongst the group of four, and fortunately, I was selected for the GB team. After the races, we were able to make use of the wonderful hot tubs at the side of the pool! They became very busy! We all swam out of our skins in the relay, and GB came 4th. This was the hardest race I had swum; 250m is not an event I have ever trained for and the last two lengths really hurt. I then jumped in the hot tub afterwards.
In the evening, another award ceremony took place, with traditional Russian dancing and singing to entertain us. Mum surprised herself and everyone else in the team by winning a bronze medal in the 60-64 age group 50 breaststroke!
The whole experience was incredible. We met new friends, faced new swimming challenges, won medals, enjoyed Russian hospitality, and were able to visit wonderful places. I am so proud to have represented GB for the second time in my swimming career, having previously been part of a GB squad at the age of fifteen. I want to thank Kate Steels for the opportunity to join GB Ice Swimming, and for organising our team so well at such a tough time. You are incredible and an inspiration, Kate. She is currently one swim away from completing the ‘Ice Sevens’ challenge. I also wanted to congratulate and thank all the members of GB Ice Swimming for making our trip to Murmansk such a wonderful experience. I am so proud of you all.
Mum and I flew to St Petersburg next day for three more days of adventure. We were invited to Ozerki club in northern St Petersburg where members train in a specially constructed ice lane. To ensure it does not freeze, warmer water is pumped from below the water level to the top of the water. Following our swim we experienced the sauna and ice hole at the other side of the lake. Thanks to Roman Karkachev of the St Petersburg Winter Swimming Federation for organising the day, and for his hospitality.
Other highlights of the trip included visiting the World’s most northern McDonalds which is located in Murmansk! They do a double fillet o’ fish and fried shrimps. Game changer…!
Important things learned on my trip to Murmansk:
- The need to invest in some Crocs.
- The UK should do fried shrimps in McDonalds.
- Russia is an incredibly hospitable country with some of the friendliest people I have ever met. Nastya my interpreter and her university group were incredible, and my experience would have not been the same without them all.
- Murmansk is a very warm and friendly city, despite the freezing temperatures.
- You can do anything you want, but you need to train both your body and your mind to overcome challenges such as Ice Swimming.
- People are really generous and lovely; thank you to everyone who entered my raffle to help me to get to Russia.
7) I now have some fabulous new friends.
Thank you to everyone who supported me to get to Murmansk, and my mum for coming with me.
You can find out more about Caroline's ice-swimming stories via her Instagram account @cxs084