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At the Olympics of ice water, swimmers race in deadly cold

The Memphremagog Winter Swim Festival in northern Vermont raises an interesting question: . . . Why?

With the air temperature at 17 degrees and the water temperature at 30 degrees L Street Ice Swimmer Christopher Graefe, of Jamaica Plain competed in the hat competition during the Winter Swim Festival at Lake Memphremagog.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

NEWPORT, VT – At the moment she informed her sister that she was fearful for her life, Laurie Craigen was wearing a bathing suit and standing just inside the door of a restaurant on the banks of the very-frozen waters of Lake Memphremagog, which is on the Canadian border in northern Vermont.

“It’s going to be great,” Amy Craigen assured her sister, and herself. “We’ve got this.”

“I am going to throw up. This is an awful idea,” Laurie replied.

This awful idea is the Memphremagog Winter Swim Festival, a proper swim meet held in water that is cold enough to kill. The Craigen sisters were first-time competitors, part of a large crew that comes up each year from the L Street Bathhouse in South Boston, which is famed for its year-round ocean swimmers.

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From left to right: L Street Ice Swimmers Laurie Craigen, Kellie Latimer, Polly Madding and Karen Nazor headed out for an evening swim in Dorchester Bay. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

But this, the L Street regulars had warned them, was a different kind of cold. This was something you can’t get in the ocean.

They stared silently out the windows for a few moments, nervously shuffling their feet and taking deep breaths, until their names were called and two “escorts” arrived to lead them out the door, into the 16-degree weather, and down a ramp to the frozen lake.

A steady wind was blowing as they were led across packed snow to a 25-meter pool that had been cut out of the ice. All around the pool were volunteers dressed like they were about to compete in the Iditarod. Off in the distance, two snowmobiles raced across the ice toward Canada.

Snow fell on the 25 meter swimming pool carved out for the Winter Swim Festival at Lake Memphremagog. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The Craigens passed the pumps that were circulating the water to keep it from re-freezing and walked to the end of the pool, where they were met by a smiling man named Phil White, the unapologetically off-color 71-year-old who is the maestro of this mayhem.

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“Now take off your clothes!” White announced, enjoying himself as always, and called for two “strippers” — his terms — to help the sisters undress. They unzipped the insulated robes they were wearing and kicked off their shoes — Crocs with ice spikes on the bottom. Wearing only a bathing suit, Amy stepped down a ladder onto a platform submerged in the 28 degree water, and immediately began yelling at her sister to hurry up and get down the ladder on the other side.

White shouted “Go” and for the next twenty or so seconds, they slowly swam to the other end of the pool — each shadowed by a “hooker” walking alongside carrying a long pole with a noose on the end, should anything go wrong quickly. There was some screaming. There was some swearing. And there was plenty of shout-gasping of the painfully obvious: it is really, really, ridiculously cold.

Martha Wood, of Manchester thanked her "stripper" as he helped to get her clothes back on after she emerged from the pool during the Winter Swim Festival at Lake Memphremagog. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

“You can’t imagine anything being this cold,” Laurie declared as she shivered her way back to a warming building under the watchful eye of her escort. “And then it gets colder.”

The 93 competitors, who had to prove they could handle ultra-cold water to qualify for admission, raced in distances ranging from 25 to 200 meters. Most swim multiple events, and the meet culminates with a pair of relays. The only rules are that there are no flip turns, no long push-offs under water, no backstroke, and no wetsuits. Also, if you swim the 200, you need a spotter who knows you well enough to be able to be able to hit the panic button at the first sign of trouble.

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Bridget Williams of North Canton, Ohio competed as a "hooker" walks alongside as a safety precaution in case the swimmers need to be pulled from the 28 degree water. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

And it is all overseen by White, who has a stock line he uses to describe how he came to be the self-proclaimed “Master of All Things Cold”: “It’s a bad joke that took a wrong turn and led to an adventure.”

A former attorney who found a late-in-life career as a race director for all sorts of running, swimming and cycling events, White lives on the lake and happened to come across a large old ice-cutting saw owned by the city of Newport, which they used to harvest chunks for ice mazes and sculptures. White posted a photo of the saw on social media one cold winter, along with the joke: Does anybody want to go for a swim?

He soon got a call from a marathon swimmer with a follow-up question: Are you serious?

It turned out that a group of Americans had just returned from a winter swimming competition in Europe, and were looking for a venue to launch a US version. “It seemed like a lot of things just came together perfectly,” he said. The following year, in 2015, White used that saw to cut through three feet of ice and 41 swimmers came to Lake Memphremagog to launch the event.

Qing Li, of Chicago stood ready at the steps of the pool as she wait to compete in the 100 meter freestyle. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The crew from Curley Community Center, as “the L” is technically known, were a big part of the early success and the sustained growth, White said. The L Street crew accounts for about a quarter of the competitors in Vermont, and it is growing each year with newcomers like the Craigen sisters. Originally from Hamilton, Amy, 41, is a healthcare recruiter who lives in Salem. Laurie is a year older and is an assistant professor of mental health counseling at Boston University Medical School. And after their wildly entertaining inaugural dip, they managed to scream their way through a handful of races.

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Now to the obvious question: Why? This level of cold is no joke. The water under the ice feels substantially colder than the winter ocean, the L crew agrees, and there are documented dangers. One woman from San Francisco lost feeling in her fingertips for nine months after last year’s event. And after they are out of the water and start to warm, many of them will experience some form of a painful phenomenon known as “afterdrop,” where cold blood from the extremities will suddenly rush to the warm core.

So why go through all that? “It is about the reset,” said Karen Nazor, a 57-year-old from Maynard who is part of the L Street crew. An English teacher at Leominster High School, she says that she can be having a bad week and one dip in frigid water will cleanse her brain. “And the after-effect is euphoria. It’s like nothing else.”

L Street Swimmer Sam Levinson, of Allston celebrated as she is escorted to the warming hut by fellow L Street Swimmers after finishing the 200 meters. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

As she spoke, Nazor was nervous. She was moments away from competing in the 200, the most feared event. She had done the 100 last year, but this was a new level of commitment. Nazor is known among the L Street crew for her extreme tolerance to cold, but this was something else.

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Her race started poorly when her goggles filled with water (yes, they stick their faces in while swimming). Halfway through, the woman she was swimming against dropped out and had to be helped out of the pool.

As Nazor approached the 150-meter mark, she looked shaky and there was concern around the pool. “Talk to her!” someone yelled.

Kellie Latimer, her spotter, leaned in close as she hit the wall.

Qing Li, of Chicago swam during the Winter Swim Festival at Lake Memphremagog. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

“Are you good?”

“Yep,” Nazor replied, and turned again for one final lap. It was nerve-wracking to watch, but she plowed on, made her final turn, and brought it home.

She came out of the pool and Latimer quickly wrapped her in a robe and helped her numb feet find her Crocs. Her teeth were chattering. Her fingers were useless. She’d swum for four minutes and 29 seconds in sub-freezing water, dead last among the 19 swimmers who finished the 200, and it had done something unmistakable to her emotions.

Polly Madding, of East Boston put her hands in a pot of tepid water to try to ease the pain as they start to warm after she took part in the 4x50 meter relay. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

She was euphoric.

She could not stop smiling. She was talking a mile a minute. And when she made it back to the warming hut, she raced around getting dried and thawed and changed into a fresh bathing suit, anxious to get back in for her next race.


Billy Baker can be reached at billy.baker@globe.com. Follow him on Instagram @billy_baker.