split image of Don Winter

A pastor from the mountain town of Butler, Tennessee, has officially become the world’s oldest male ice mile swimmer.

Aptly named Don Winter, he swam one mile in the 3.75°C (38.75°F) waters of Watauga Lake to claim the record aged 66 years 105 days.

He completed the swim in a time of 52 minutes 57 seconds.

An ice mile is a one-mile swim under International Ice Swimming Association rules in water temperature of 5°C or less, wearing just swimming trunks, goggles, and a swim cap.

Swimming in such cold water is extremely dangerous and can cause hypothermia, cardiac arrest, and even death.

The previous record holder was an Irishman named Ger Purcell, who was 66 years 12 days old when he swam an ice mile in 2021.

Don Winter swimming the ice mile

Ger swam his mile nine minutes faster than Don, but Don did it in water over 1°C colder and at a much higher elevation of 597 metres (1,959 ft).

The oldest female ice mile swimmer (and person overall) is Jerrie Roberts (UK), who was aged 73 years 158 days when she swam in the 2.68°C (36.8°F) waters of Loch Morlich in the Scottish Highlands on 1 December 2023. She did it in 54 minutes 43 seconds.

Don has been a keen swimmer for many years, but he only began ice swimming four years ago.

He wore a wetsuit at first, giving his body a layer of insulation, but after a year he started swimming without it to acclimate his body to the cold water.

He was only able to stay in the water for around five minutes at first, but over time, he steadily increased the duration and distance of his ice swims up to 35 minutes.

Don Winter wading through water

“The ice swimming was sort of a science experiment to see what my body could withstand,” Don said.

“My body went through many different sensations in becoming cold-water tolerant and some of them were quite brutal, especially with the ‘after drop’, which happens about 10-15 minutes after you exit the water and the cold blood that has been in your extremities makes its way back to your core.”

Before attempting longer ice swims, Don ensured he knew how to identify the symptoms of hypothermia. The full effects of hypothermia can take around 30 minutes to develop and can lead to complete failure of the heart and respiratory system.

While swimming the ice mile, Don recalls entering a “meditative state”.

He said: “It was almost like I was in a boat just repeating muscle memory strokes and never even noticing the cold.”

Don Winter wearing a wetsuit

Don is a devout Christian and says he prayed to God and confessed his sins while swimming.

When you are swimming in dangerously cold, life-threatening water, it is a good time to make sure you are in good standing with the Almighty.

Don hopes his achievement will encourage others to maintain an active lifestyle for as long as physically possible, just like his grandmother did, who worked until she became bedbound at 95.

He said: “My ancestors up here in the Appalachian Mountains knew nothing of a thing called retirement.

“I think that too often seniors give up and go to the rocking chairs way too early.

“Yes, we all have aging issues and things that hurt, but don’t stop and give up.”

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