Stockholm Winterswim Open 2022
Imagine taking off all your clothes and climbing down into a pool carved into the ice, while locals ice-skate around you and a steamy hot tub awaits on the shore. This roughly summarises the spirit of the Swedish championship in winter swimming that I joined in February 2022 and it was heavenly.
In fairness, I have always dreamed of swimming in freezing water in a pool specially carved in thick ice under clear blue skies. Over the years, I’d drooled over quite a few pics from friends’ ice swimming trips in Finland, Sweden or Estonia and my own ice swimming experience in Norway in 2017 had definitely whet my appetite for more.
When my friend Ian turned 40, he decided that the best way to celebrate his birthday was to join the Stockholm Winterswim Open 2022 in Sweden. What a crazy and very sensible idea! Since “the more the merrier” is very much in Ian’s blood, he invited friends to tag along, enjoy saunas and have a giggle. Apart from me, the trip thus featured BFF Charlie, Border Terrier Dottie’s mom Emma, and anthropology-savvy doctor Sophie. It would have been a perfect script for “Five go ice swimming in Sweden”.
In order to get to said icy swim, there was obviously a journey and as we all know, the journey is sometimes as exciting as the destination. Let me backtrack to the morning of the event in Stockholm.
From Stockholm to Hellasgården
On a fine Saturday morning, the championship was set to start at 9am at Hellasgården recreation area outside Stockholm, with races scheduled until midday. To get there on time, the five of us factored in a very important element—faffing.
If the word faffing is new to you, it means spending a deal of time doing ineffectual activities. Over the years, most of us swimmers in our Stockholm group have mastered the British art of faffing to perfection. It’s putzing around, for all of you across the pond. Faffing can happen when you pack a bag, when you are about to swim, when saying goodbye or before a race; basically at any stretchy moment in time before an action. It’s the art of delaying the inevitable.
Obviously, we could not afford too much faffing before a swimming event. For a 9am start, we thus set the alarm clock at 7am for a prompt 7.45am departure from the City Backpackers Hostel in Stockholm, in order to catch a metro towards Slussen, then walk to the bus terminal, to reach Hellasgården around 8.30am. Much to our surprise, it all worked out.
At the bus terminal before boarding the bus, we caught a glimpse of the sea surrounding the terminal, with big chunks of ice bobbing along the sea walls and a somewhat choppy North Sea further away. Hopefully, our swimming location would be colder with even more ice.
On the Bus
In the crowded bus, we squeezed around the central area with our big bags full of warm layers, hot drinks flasks and swimming kit, watching the scenery change from tall city buildings to winter boreal forests. From afar, we spotted a ski run in between city buildings, which seemed just a little nuts, and a pond that looked frozen solid, which seemed promising.
By the time we reached Hellasgården, we were most definitely out in nature, surrounded by bare trees, and the ground appeared to be frozen everywhere.
About to step off the bus, we suddenly doubted the location–was this it, did we get it right? Noticing people walking around in DryRobes on a path near the road, we breathed a sigh of relief. Nobody in their right mind would wear a DryRobe as a fashion statement. This was clearly a winter swimming event.
Swedish Championship in Winter Swimming Registration
After crossing the road via a tunnel and a parking lot as glassy as a mirror, we gingerly lined up at a white tent to register for our races. As the championship was a relatively small event (only 156 swimmers), people were slowly trickling in one by one and the line was short.
Emma had a big laugh when she realized that her last name had been misspelled to a name which, we all agreed, could be viewed as an improvement if ever she chose to go undercover. Though I’m used to my name being butchered, I was glad to see it correctly spelled and Ian’s was fine too, but the Serpentine Swimming Club, our team, had been rechristened to SerpetinSC. Oh well.
We didn’t wait long to receive our goodie bag, which was amazing! It included a bar of Swedish chocolate, a finisher’s certificate, a finisher’s medal, and a clear blue plastic thingie that we assumed to be a drinks coaster but was in fact an ice scraper (Sweden in winter, eh). It took a lot of willpower not to eat the chocolate bar right away. Wait. Did one of us eat their chocolate bar on the spot? Maybe.
Swim Event Location
Dressing for Winter Weather
Once registered around 8.45am, the reality of standing outside for hours on end in -1 C/ 30 F air temperature dawned on us. What were we going to do until noon and would any of us turn into an ice cube?
As Charlie suffers from Raynaud’s, a condition that makes extremities go white, cold and just painful, she was prepared for Arctic conditions with extra warm layers, DryRobe and thick knits. In a blue cloudy ski suit, Emma was equally well prepared. Sophie, Ian and I were perhaps less Arctic-proof, but hoped that the sun would come out.
Setting the Scene
Walking down a wide path, past two white tents for changing, we reached the edge of a fine natural lake, with tree-lined shores and small forested islands trapped in the ice. Our side of the lake was still in the shade but judging by the clear blue skies above us, the sun would soon warm up our shore.
Most importantly, the surface of the lake was frozen!
That’s when Swedish hospitality was going to be very welcome. Catching a whiff of burning wood, we spotted two large hot tubs by the main path; they were slowly warming up, their chimneys releasing white smoke into the air. Nice :) This had post-swim defrosting written all over it.
Before the races started, we explored the area around the buildings where all the race organization was set up and headed to a large wooden pier above the lake.
To the left side of the pier, a small ladder led to a hole and what looked like an ice explosion surrounded by bright red crime tape.
What could this be? We quickly got an answer when two young women brushed past us wrapped in towels, dropping the towels by the ladder to dunk into the icy waters of the lake. After a quick dip, they ran back to disappear through a door in the building right by the lake. Found the sauna!
Charlie and Ian’s adrenalin probably kicked in by 200% right then and they immediately took off to enquire about said sauna.
Unfortunately, it was fully booked that morning but during the course of the event, we got a really good view of all the sauna lovers taking quick dips in the lake. Most of them were young people, some of them dropping the top half of their swimming costume for Instagram pics, a young guy going full commando several times, mastering the art of dropping the towel on the first rung of the ladder right before disappearing in the ice. Ah, Sweden!
While gazing at the frozen surface of the lake after a group pic, we suddenly saw a man gracefully gliding on the lake.
And another one. We were gobsmacked. This was how cold the water then, cold to the point that the ice was thick enough to support ice skaters. Wowsers. None of us had ever done that and suddenly, we were fascinated.
Ice Swimming Rules
Before the event, we learned that the water temperature was 1.9C/35 F, which qualified as ice swimming temperature. While 5C/41F and above is supposed to offer a relative comfort zone, 5C and below temperatures are definitely uncomfortable and all swims below 5C are ice swims as defined by the International Ice Swimming Association. Each degree below 5C makes swimming that much more challenging.
To spice things up, the essence of ice swimming under IISA is swimming unassisted in water temperature of 5C or below, with a pair of goggles, one silicon cap and standard swimming costume.
Had we been swimming a mile, we would have been in Extreme Ice Mile territory (ice miles below 2C), which as the name suggests is an extreme category of an extreme sport. As it were with 25- or 50-meter distances, we were at the extreme end of a comfortable distance for us swimmers used to winter swimming in the Serpentine. Other competitors came from similar cold swimming background, such as the Hellas Swimming Club, the Royal Cercle Theux Natation or the Malmœ Swimming Club.
As far as readiness, we had been training for the Polar Bear Swim Challenge all winter, albeit in warmer conditions. When last we swam in the Serpentine before the trip, the water temperature was 5.3C. and the Serpentine’s water temperature hadn’t dipped below 3.7C all winter. That made 1.9C both exciting and frightening. How would it feel?
We were about to find out. Looking at our watch, we realized that the event was starting and that we had better get ready for the races.
We all headed to the main area, waiting for competitors to jump into the ultra-cool magazine-worthy swimming pool. This was a proper four-lane pool carved into the ice, with two floating boards at both ends, a floating deck along the side and ladders that were drilled tight a couple of times for maximum safety.
One of the race organizers told me that the four-lane course had been kept ice-free thanks to a water pump pumping water 24/7 over the past day but said pump had unfortunately frozen overnight, so they had needed to get it going again that morning so we could swim in ice-free water.
As far as swim meet structure, the event was very standard with races sorted by distance, gender and stroke, breaststrokers going before freestylers, 25 meters going before 50 meters, women before men, and relays finishing up the event.
Emma: 25-meter Breaststroke
Emma went first, with the 25-meter breaststroke event. That event was by far the most popular and featured several heats, both for women and men, including some fancy hat swimmers who were an absolute riot.
To get a good cheerleading view of Emma, our group sat on a big boulder overlooking the pool area and indulged in a bit of people-watching, admiring amongst others a very crafty wool hat designed for braids or pigtails.
Glamorous in a red swimming costume, Emma breezed through the 25 meters while chatting to her next lane neighbor and emerged at the other end with a glow–and probably a new friend.
While Emma headed straight for the hot tub, she admitted that it was rather lukewarm and hadn’t had the time to reach peak hotness just yet.
Ian: 25-meter Front Crawl
Ian’s turn came about an hour later, after all the 25-m breaststroke events were over–the women’s, the men’s and the medal ceremony with medals for each age group.
We took great delight in listening to the commentary in Swedish, which none of us understood but which sounded at times very encouraging and passionate.
By the time Ian disrobed by the ladder, it was clear that the 25-m front crawl was going to be no dawdle. This was a goggles-on, swim cap-on, head-in-the-water race, with little margin for chitchat save at both ends of the pool. His neighbors were not messing around.
We all cheered on the birthday boy who plunged right in and once at the other end, revelled in this birthday highlight by faffing a little bit in flip-flops on the board. What a smile he had!
Of course, he directed himself to the hot tub in no time and enjoyed it, though it had not reached peak hotness yet.
Come on hot tub, get hot already.
Laure: 50-meter Front Crawl
My race concluded the individual races and was the least popular of all events, with only two heats of four women. As only three women showed, my heat was down to three competitors.
After changing in the white tent, I eagerly went down to the water and waited by a ladder, only to be recalled because I was supposed to check in at the top. Oops. In my flip-flops, I went back up the small hill and checked in on the sign-in sheet, waiting with the two other swimmers. After a few minutes, we were officially marshalled down the hill to the board.
By the ladder, I disrobed, put my clothes in a big bag, handed it to a warden and waved to my fabulous group from afar. Goggles on, earplugs in, I was “in the zone” and waited for the signal to enter the water.
“Swimmers may enter the water.”
In winter swimming competitions, diving is usually not allowed. Competitors must start with a shoulder in the water, one arm extended underwater and the other arm on the ladder.
“Get set! Go!”
I jumped right in and the shock was immediate, though it was not a cold water shock. I didn’t feel the cold but what I did not expect was for the water to be black, very pitch dark black. Instantly, I felt disoriented. Instead of swimming in a straight line, I kept sighting above water and wasted precious time trying to find my bearings, avoiding the lane dividers.
By the end of the first 25 meters, I knew that I was last in my heat but I still gave it my all. While I couldn’t hear them, I knew that my group was singing “Eye of the Tiger” at the top of their lungs for me and that felt great.
As soon as I climbed up the ladder, I was directed to the hot tub and lucky for me, it was deliciously hot!
I may even have overstayed my hot tub welcome as I waited for the competitors of two men’s races to come in before leaving my coveted spot by the hot water pipe.
I should say something about the other competitors because the small size of this event made it very human and friendly.
As we watched races during three hours, we took to cheering on other competitors when we were not swimming, which was very uplifting and fun. “Go Björn!” “Allez, Morgane!” We cheered on everyone and sometimes, louder than everyone.
Not knowing who we were cheering on made it even better, and the slowest swimmer in each heat usually got the best cheers from the crowd. This showed true sportsmanship.
Talking to other swimmers, we realized that some of them were seriously awesome. A woman had been affected by Long Covid and to celebrate her recovery, had signed for every single event. We saw her posing with a Covid-19 poster.
Meeting Your Hero
You know the saying, never meet your heroes? Turns out there can be exceptions to the rule. There’s this French swimmer who’s quite a legend in the English Channel swimming community, named Sylvain Arvidieu (ex-Estadieu), aka the Fly Guy. He became the first man to swim the English Channel butterfly in 2013. My friend Alex Voyer met him at a Swedish winter swim meet up north and Alex told me that Sylvain lived in Sweden.
I was thrilled to realize that he was part of the Stockholm competition and went over to chat with him, completely fangirling over meeting the butterfly champion (he also kicks ass at other strokes and won his age group in all the races he entered). He was super nice too, which proves that sometimes it’s OK to meet your hero.
I was getting changed on a boulder when the 50-meter medal ceremony started and I heard a name that sounded like mine but dismissed it as a mistake, until Emma tapped me on the shoulder. “They’re calling your name!”
In my ugly flip-flops, I hobbled to the event organizer who lined me up with four other competitors and humbly received a gold medal for my age group.
I was a Swedish champion!
Now, the Eye of the Tiger felt totally justified and I even received a second blue ice scraper. Man, I could ice scrape the hell out of any frosty wind shield by now.
Feeling extremely happy, I posed for pictures and finished lacing up my shoes. We all packed up and when ready to go, headed back to the city with our loot, but on the way to the bus stop, Ian got sidetracked.
Cute dog alert!
Ian has no self-control around cute dogs and always carries dog treats in his pockets. Imagine the faffing consequences.
Fortunately, we managed to pull him away from the cute dog and to get back to Stockholm to celebrate our frosty swims with… a sauna, what else?
Happy birthday, Ian!
Stockholm Championship in Winter Swimming Video
Photo credits: Ian MacEachern, Emma Frampion and Laure Latham