Ice Swimming: Cold for the Skin, Hot for the Soul by Oxana Sundkvist

sitting-on-ice-cover Keep challenging yourself: As a lifelong pool swimmer, I wouldn't have imagined this photo possible one year ago

Oxana's Instagram posts ( @swimming.oxy ) caught my eye as she shared her impressive cold water and icy swimming journey in her adopted country, Sweden. Below the surface, I discovered, as always there's much more to someone than first meets the eye. Oxana's story offers great inspiration about embracing change, forging a new life and reinventing oneself in a foreign land, the strength necessary to be a world-class athlete as well as finding solutions to the woes of winter that lead to exciting new life pathways. Thank you, Oxana!

Ice Swimming: Cold for the Skin, Hot for the Soul

by Oxana Sundkvist 

I was born in the Russian city of Tomsk located in the Siberian heartland. When I was 22, I moved to Sweden because of finswimming. Finswimming is a competitive underwater sport but not yet an Olympic sport. I hope it will be someday. It consists of four techniques involving the use of fins to swim either on the water's surface, using a snorkel with either a mono-fin or bi-fins, or underwater with a mono-fin either by holding one's breath or adapted scuba equipment. People use these special fins in both swimming pool and open water venues as well as for free diving to help go deep or simply to enjoy playing as a mermaid. I love the speed and the sensations finswimming gives me. It feels like I am flying in the water.

I've been a finswimmer for many years and really love that sport and water in all its forms. For 5 years I competed on the Russian national finswimming team. At swim competitions I met many Swedes. Just as I was finishing my university studies, a Swedish club offered me the chance to move to Sweden to swim for their club. It felt like an exciting challenge and the timing was perfect. I said, Yes!

Moving to a new country is an exciting but very tough experience. Building a new life and adapting to the new society with a new language, mentality and culture while missing my homeland, family and friends was painful. Now I've lived almost half of my life here in Sweden. It is my home now and I have made new friends and have family here as well.

Becoming a Cold Water Swimmer
But, the arrival of fall and winter each year, brings me sadness and sorrow. I come from Siberia where the climate is very harsh. Siberia is probably the coldest inhabited place in the world. During the winter, a very powerful high pressure system develops over Siberia and bitter, cold, powerful winds descend over the cities. It is not uncommon for the winter temperatures to drop to -40 to -50 C (-40 to -58 F), especially in the severe inland areas. I come from central Siberia where the summers are short, but due to the extreme continental climate, relatively warm, and the daytime temperatures often rise to over 30C+ (86F). In winter there is, of course, a lot of snow but the sky is usually blue and it is sunny.
When "the sky is low" in Sweden, I can lose energy and get sad.

In Sweden, autumn and winter are not as cold as in Siberia but they are long and dark. In Sweden they have an expression "the sky is low" meaning that the seemingly ever-present clouds oppress and weigh one down with their darkness. Sometimes weeks can pass by without seeing the sun. The evenings get dark and cold early and it impacts me: I lose energy and get sad. I wrote a post on Instagram about my melancholy in late October 2020. A friend of mine replied something along the lines of: "Come with me and try cold swimming baths." I thought, Why not? I decided to try it with her and, since then, I have been cold water swimming every single weekend.

While I'm a very experienced pool swimmer in waters that are around 26C (79F), the idea of going into a cold lake (15C/59 or less) challenged me. Facing the cold takes a different type of nerves and presents different challenges to the body and mind.

I am a competitive person and I've always loved to compete. I competed in both the World Cup Championships and the European Championships, the most important competitions in my sport. Several years of difficult training and hard work in a swimming pool come down to just a few seconds, when I will see how I stand in the competition against all the other well-trained athletes. Of course, muscles, fitness, technology, equipment and how much time you spend training are vital to success. But, I think, in the end, when it comes to the elite level and world championships, it is the nerves that show who is best. That's the most beautiful thing about competition for me. It's just like that: either you have nerves to win or you don't. I have the nerves necessary to win and I guess my nerves helped me to try and develop my cold water swimming where the stakes were very different.

I developed a different type of nerves to face the ice and cold
Facing freezing water is very different than a 26C pool

My First Cold Water Swim
When I tried cold water swimming for the first time, the day after my friend suggested it, it was a beautiful, sunny, 18C day, which is unusual for late October in Sweden. My friend and I met at Lake Mälaren, about an hour from Stockholm and close to where I live. Lake Mälaren is Sweden's third largest lake and it has a very long shoreline. From east to west, Lake Mälaren stretches about 120 kilometers and is the source of drinking water for about 2.3 million people! Above all it is a beautiful lake to swim and boat in. I feel lucky to live nearby.

My first 'swim' in the lake was really a simple, quick, in-and-out immersion. The water was about 15 C/59F and it felt really cold. It made me shout and laugh a lot as we jumped in and splashed around. But what I felt after this cold swim experience was indescribable. Once out, after I warmed up, I felt so glad and good. Right there and then I knew that this was exactly what I wanted to keep doing regularly. So, the week after, I went to the lake again and then again and again. It became a weekly ritual I looked forward to greatly. Week after week it also got colder and colder as autumn turned into winter. During November and December, the temperature dropped by a few degrees each week. In December the air temperature was around 0C/32F and then, finally, snow and ice settled over the lake in January. But, of course, the cold could not stop me, a girl true to her Siberian roots.

Oct 2020 - After the first swim with my dear friend
November 2020 - the cold weather is just beginning

The first few times I went to the lake, the swim was more like a quick dip; I barely had time to see that I was in the water, we laughed a lot and then I came out. But later, as the water got colder, I felt the need to find techniques to calm my body's reaction to the cold. Breathing was the key to finding calm in mind and body. Breathing in turn is a very powerful tool to land in the 'here and now' and the doorway to experience true, real presence where no thoughts exist beyond what is happening exactly in that moment of contact with the cold. It is as if the only moment that exists is NOW. It's just me, my breathing, the cold, and nature! It is not about pushing myself, but about an experience. Despite being an experienced pool swimmer my whole life, I realized I was learning about my body, my reactions, and my strength in new ways. I loved it and I was hooked.

I found new inner strength I didn't know I had when facing the harsh weather and cold water....but I am from Siberia.

Handling the Cold & Being in the Now
I also discovered that my feet and hands don't handle the cold water well. I bought neoprene gloves and shoes which helped me a lot. After that I took my cold-water swimming to the next level. When I swim in cold water, the body draws all the blood to internal organs to protect them and therefore my feet and hands freeze immediately. By using gloves and shoes, I was able to stay in the water longer, which gave me the opportunity to discover new emotions and sensations. There is much research that demonstrates the benefits of cold water swimming, but I did not read many scientific articles. Instead, I chose to listen to my body. Self-experimentation showed me that cold water reduced tension and fatigue in my body and I become more alert and energetic. In addition, when I am swimming in cold water, I also get a feeling of being one with nature, which has many positive effects on my mood.

Breathing: I needed new techniques to embrace the cold
Cold water swimming forcibly brings you into the 'Now'

Joy in the Cold: Santa Lucia Swimming
The benefits of cold-water swimming are not limited to its calming effect. It can also be very fun and enjoyable. Some days I get the feeling that it's time to fool around. I can, for example, dress up or choose a colorful swimsuit. For example, each December in Sweden (as throughout Scandinavia and Italy), Saint Lucy's Day is celebrated. In Swedish she's Santa Lucia and represented as a lady in a white dress, symbolizing a baptismal robe, and a red sash, symbolizing the blood of her martyrdom. She also wears a crown or wreath of candles on her head. 

According to legend, she brought food and aid to Christians hiding in the Roman catacombs, wearing a candle lit wreath on her head to light her way and leave her hands free to carry as much food as possible. To celebrate Santa Lucia in December 2020, I had fun and put on a white swimsuit with red ribbons and wore a crown with candles. It was a fantastic coincidence that when I got in the water at the lake, a costumed group of Santa Lucia celebrants came by kayaking. They stopped to watch me swim and I enjoyed traditional Lucia music and the cold bath. What a moment!

Deep Cold: Sitting on Ice
I never swim in the lake by myself during the winter. There is always a group of friends who are with me. Some of them bathe while others just watch or take pictures. Sometimes I want to swim in peace and quiet and just breathe and be with myself in the 'here and now.' But sometimes I'm in a funny mood and want to joke and laugh. One morning in Feburary 2021, when we were going to swim, the ice was thick and the only way to get into the lake was to make a hole. We did this. It was incredibly beautiful all around. 

I felt like swimming to the edge of the ice and getting out and sitting on it. It is a special, curious feeling to be wearing a winter hat, gloves and socks but at the same time be dressed in a swimming suit and be sitting on the ice with your legs swaying in water, as if you were on a tropical beach. Yes, the skin feels intensely the cold both because of the water and the ice but then it gets hot in the soul. It is the contrasts that give the joy. I am basically an optimist and always find opportunities and solutions. Therefore, I felt that cold swimming is the right alternative for me, it gives the opportunity for laughter and joy as well as peace and calm.

Cold Swimming at First Light
I like to cold water swim early in the morning because there's a special calm and light over the lake; I perceive shades, shifts and details that might otherwise pass me by. There is nothing that refreshes the brain and mood more than a cold water swim. I get fitter, feel happier and I find myself generally in a better mood throughout the day. The kick I get from the cold water swimming is something I long for all week. It's like just so heavenly wonderful! I also get a closer contact with nature and get to experience it in a completely different way.

During these last months, I've learned that no two baths are alike. A quiet frosty, sunny winter morning gives a completely different experience than a stormy late autumn day. But every time the water manages to wash away grief, loss and sorrow and gives me energy and strength in return. It's a win-win. I know that I will never stop wild swimming and I will go now from a cold water swimmer to a year round swimmer in nature without giving up my love of finswimming. The sadness of winter opened up a new doorway to peace and warmth in my heart through the cold water.
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Monday, 06 December 2021

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