In early 2023, GWR was invited to the 5th World Ice Swimming Championships taking place in the picturesque mountain village of Samoëns in the French Alps.
Offering a chance to meet the world’s most elite ice swimmers and take a deep dive into the ever-growing trend for outdoor and cold-water swimming – not to mention the prospect of multiple new records – it didn’t take much to persuade us to attend.
The contest was already making history before anyone even dipped a toe into the brisk waters of Lac aux Dames where the action was to play out from 11–15 January. With 467 entrants from 41 countries and 1,800 race starts in the packed schedule, it broke new ground (or should that be ice?) as the largest ice swimming competition, based on the pool of competitors.
Hundreds more were in attendance when factoring in event organizers, race officials, a delegation from FINA/World Aquatics (including French judge Denis Cadon), the swimmers’ support staff, media, spectators and a few bemused-looking ducks.
In total, 25 new world records were verified by the end of the five-day frosty showdown (see the full list at the end of the article). It’s worth noting that many of these were new categories being recognized by GWR for the first time, expanding our ice swimming coverage to bring the pursuit more in line with competitive pool swimming. Though by no means was this going to be an easy “swim in the park” – there were high bars to beat based on times achieved in previous competitions.
Conditions were favourable for strong performances, though. Warmer/wetter-than-normal weather in southern France made for: a) lots of mud and b) an average water temperature of 3.7°C (38.7°F). (For context, at the inaugural World Ice Swimming Championships that took place in 2015 in Murmansk, Russia, the water temperature in Lake Semenovskoe dipped close to 0°C (32°F)). Nonetheless, 3.7°C is far from balmy. Water this cold still presents huge challenges to the human body, both physically and psychologically – to an even greater extent when racing in it.
Recognizing the very real risks involved with ice swimming, great efforts have been put into mitigating these, as must be done with any extreme sport. Strict health and safety protocols have been developed, medical staff are on hand and the competitors even have a purpose-built “warming up” area packed with saunas and hot tubs to help bring up their body heat post-swim.
Crucially, the lake water was beneath the threshold of 5°C (41°F) set out by the International Ice Swimming Association (IISA); anything above that point is not deemed “ice swimming”. Additionally, in case you were wondering, IISA conforms with the standard across the open-water swimming community that stipulates swimmers can only wear a basic swimsuit, swim cap and goggles – no neoprene suits to stave off the chill in this game!
The founder of IISA, Ram Barkai, was the originator of the World Ice Swimming Championships. As well as overseeing proceedings and duties such as presenting medals at Samoëns, he even found time to don his trunks to take part in a few races himself.
The Israel-born South African extreme swimmer, now aged 65, has set several records of his own over the years. For one thing, on 7 February 2008, he performed the most southerly ice swim, covering 1 km (0.6 mi) at a latitude of 70.76° S in Long Lake, Queen Maud Land, Antarctica. His as-yet-surpassed southerly 1 km swim was part of IISA’s origin story. It was not long after this record was approved by GWR that Ram began to ponder why, despite a global community keen to push their limits and compete in super-cold water, more wasn’t being done to promote ice swimming as a professional sport.
To rectify that, in 2009 he established IISA. Firstly, the organization focused on developing rules and best practice around longer, more extreme swims (i.e., 1 mile and 1 km). This scope was later broadened to monitor shorter distances and different strokes. The long-term goal is to get ice swimming all the way to the Winter Olympics.
Asked if this sport draws a certain type of person, Ram told us: “It attracts a lot of people, especially now that swimming outdoors has become so popular all around the world.”
But he concedes it’s not for everyone. “There are some I’ve met that have come and gone – because some people’s physiology doesn’t take it well, or [they] don’t like the pain or discomfort…
“What amazes me is that people that manage to go through that process of managing the pain, when they come out [of the water], they have this unbelievable sense of achievement.
“We grew up [being told] that getting into water [this cold] is an accident, you’re going to die, you’ve got 30 seconds [to get out]… and now just over there in the lake at three or so degrees, there’s a guy going up and down, warming up [for his event]. It goes completely against any of the [previous perceived knowledge].”
"In the last 10 years, I met so many medical people who told me ‘you shouldn’t do that, you can’t do that’… And now in the last couple of years, they are much more interested. They say ‘I don’t understand how this works’ rather than ‘You’re going to die’" - Ram Barkai, founder of IISA
Arguably the most-anticipated race at Samoëns – as it is at every World Ice Swimming Championships – was the 1 km. The ultimate ice swimmers competing in this gruelling swim-off, which demanded 40 lengths of the short-course pool in the lake, were fighting to be crowned “King and Queen of the Ice”.
Given just how challenging the undertaking is, it’s never guaranteed that new world records will be claimed in the 1 km event. As you’d expect, the longer time spent in icy water, the greater its toll on the body. Common effects that can kick in within a matter of seconds of diving into water that is close to zero include muscle spasms, numb/tingling extremities, finding it hard to breathe, cold neuralgia (“brain freeze”), disorientation or just pure exhaustion.
But defying the odds, new world-best times for men and women were logged in Samoëns – both by the existing record holders who bettered their previous marks.
Riding high after securing the 500 m world record the day before, Alisa Fatum from Germany took the female 1 km title with a time of 12 min 46.04 sec. This shaved just over 2 sec off her previous record, which had stood since 2019. Despite only being 27, Alisa is already considered a veteran of ice swimming. Since the age of 18, she has been priming herself to be the “Queen of the Ice”, swimming year-round, including when temperatures plummet through the winter, in the lakes around her native Leipzig.
After the race, Alisa told us: “I was very nervous but I wanted to improve on my world record. It was a very hard race, but in the end, it was a start-finish victory.”
With a blistering time of 11 min 31.53 sec, the male 1 km title was retained by Marcin Szarpak (Poland), who first got into ice swimming “because he likes to try new things” and after reading a random online article by a fellow Polish swimmer who went to Antarctica. Marcin obliterated his former world-beating result of 11 min 48.10 sec, set the previous year in his homeland at the 2022 World Ice Swimming Championships in Glogow, Poland.
Despite already holding the record, a modest Marcin was far from confident going into the race. “Competing against an ex-Olympian and a several-time world champion was a huge pressure because they are elite veterans, and basically I am a rookie! So competing against them, it was both a great stress and a great pleasure.
"It was an amazing experience and I will remember this for the rest of my life" - Marcin Szarpak, King of the Ice
Since the championships, Marcin hasn’t exactly been sitting back and basking in his extended reign as “King of the Ice”. Far from it: on 12 March 2023, he claimed another record for endurance ice swimming, completing the fastest one-mile ice swim in 19 min 57 sec in Świętochłowice, Poland.
Another standout star at Samoëns was 18-year-old Keaton Jones from Arizona, USA. Despite this event being his debut ice-swimming meet, the Team USA Olympic hopeful nevertheless managed to claim five new records across freestyle, backstroke and butterfly.
Such a haul would be impressive for a seasoned ice swimmer, let alone a newcomer competing in water that is some 20°C, or 40°F, below what he was more accustomed to in indoor-pool contests. But the experience already has Keaton hooked, and he has his sights set on even faster times.
“I’ve really enjoyed it. The community here is really amazing – I’ve met some really nice people. That feeling when you get out [of the pool] – that rush that hits your body – is something I’ve never felt. It sucks a little,” he laughs, “but it’s pretty enjoyable.”
Keaton continued: “I think if I trained more it would be a lot easier on my body. I’m a skinny guy – it’s not super easy on me. It’s for sure a little harder on my body than for people who are used to this and have more experience. It’s just so different: pool swimming and this are complete opposites. I think if I practise more, it would be a different experience.”
A number of records were also set in the para ice swimming events that took place at the 5th World Ice Swimming Championships. Germany’s Tina Deeken – who in March went on to be recognized as the Athlete of the Year by the Disabled Sports Association of Lower Saxony – claimed three women’s freestyle titles: 250 m, 100 m and 50 m.
Tina, whose left leg is paralysed and has limited use of her left arm, was keen to extol the benefits of outdoor swimming, particularly to other swimmers with disabilities: “I love swimming outdoors all year. With the cold water, it’s hard to get in, it’s hard to be in, it’s hard afterwards… but it’s a good feeling.
“I hope if other para swimmers see us doing this, then they will think ‘Perhaps I could do it too’. That would be great.”
The 6th IISA World Ice Swimming Championships are due to take place in Molveno, Italy, on 13–19 January 2025.
SAMOËNS' SUPERLATIVE SWIMS
|1 km (male)||11 min 31.53 sec||Marcin Szarpak (POL)|
|1 km (female)||12 min 46.04 sec||Alisa Fatum (DEU)|
|1 km para (female)||16 min 45.12 sec||Nadja Joy Tønnesen (DNK)|
|500 m (male)||5 min 36.49 sec||Radostin Krastev (BGR)|
|500 m (female)||6 min 10.87 sec||Alisa Fatum|
|500 m para (male)||10 min 21.02 sec||Marc Boutin (FRA)|
|250 m (male)||2 min 36.99 sec||Marcin Szarpak|
|250 m para (female)||4 min 8.71 sec||Tina Deeken (DEU)|
|100 m freestyle (male)||55.69 sec||Keaton Jones (USA)|
|100 m freestyle (female)||1 min 4.42 sec||Ludivine Blanc (FRA)|
|100 m freestyle para (male)||1 min 29.51 sec||Marc Boutin|
|100 m freestyle para (female)||1 min 26.92 sec||Tina Deeken|
|100 m backstroke (male)||1 min 0.27 sec||Keaton Jones|
|100 m backstroke (female)||1 min 12.71 sec||Maja Olszewska (ISL)|
|100 m breaststroke (male)||1 min 11.33 sec||Michał Perl (POL)|
|100 m butterfly (male)||59.36 sec||Keaton Jones|
|100 m butterfly (female)||1 min 12.36 sec||Louise Bernard (FRA)|
|100 m individual medley (male)||1 min 3.55 sec||Sławomir Wilkowski (POL)|
|100 m individual medley (female)||1 min 15.38 sec||Marta Piasecka (ISL)|
|50 m freestyle (male)||25.22 sec||Keaton Jones|
|50 m freestyle (female)||28.85 sec||Ludivine Blanc|
|50 m freestyle para (female)||39.68 sec||Tina Deeken|
|50 m backstroke (male)||27.93 sec||Keaton Jones|
|50 m backstroke (female)||33.19 sec||Ludivine Blanc|
|50 m breaststroke (male)||31.83 sec||Michał Perl|
|All times ratified by IISA|
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