NEWPORT, Vt. — Reasonable people would say that swimming in icy waters is insane.
“If I had a dollar for every time somebody told me I was crazy, I’d be a rich woman,” says Lelane Rossouw-Bancroft, who is originally from South Africa.
She’s not alone. Forty swimmers here have all heard the same thing. But here they are, channeling their inner penguin, near the Canadian border.
It’s 16 degrees at the start of the Winter Swimming Championships — the first such sanctioned event in North America — on Lake Memphremagog. The windchill is around zero.
A 25-meter, two-lane pool has been carved out of the lake by chainsaws, and volunteers have used bubblers, mallets, and rakes to keep the 30.5-degree water from refreezing. Blocks of 3-foot-thick robins-egg-blue ice and flags from some of the 10 countries and eight states represented create a Currier and Ives feel to the frozen tundra.
Winter, or ice, swimming is popular in Finland (where 1,200 people recently took part in a world championship), Russia, and Japan. But not in the US, where this is a historic first.
There are no wetsuits allowed. This is not a photo opportunity for some polar plunge. This is a swim meet, with races of 25 meters, 50 meters, and 100 meters.
Cristian Vergara of the US Winter Swimming Association makes sure everyone signs a liability waiver.
“I need you to sign your life away,” he says cheerfully. “Stay away from the edges; there’s ice, and you could get cut.”
Swimmers must enter feet-first and then submerge their shoulders before the race begins.
Hypothermia during these short races is not a concern, Vergara said. But hyperventilation is a very real danger. Firefighters with ropes and flotation devices are stationed on one side of the rectangular pool. An EMT in a wetsuit patrols the other.
“The most dangerous is the shock when you get in the water,” says Vergara. “That’s why there’s no diving. That’s when you could have a heart attack. If you have high blood pressure, you can pass out. You can hyperventilate if you have no experience.”
Amanda Hunt of Chicago competes with a broken foot. Her doctor told her to ice it, but she went a little overboard.
“When you get in, it’s a shock,” she says. “It’s like you can’t breathe and your chest is crushed and it takes a while to adapt.”
Getting out requires planning.
“You’ve got to have everything prepared,” she says. “A quick exit, hat on, suit off, and get warm and get dressed.”
At the world championship in Finland, there were saunas and hot tubs nearby. In Siberia, they had girls in bikinis helping out.
Here, the Northeast Kingdom hosts struggled valiantly to overcome the cruel conditions.
A warming tent that was promised to them was taken by the National Guard to Boston for its snow emergency. A warming room at a nearby marina was quickly secured, but the showers didn’t work.
Then the plow that was to clear a path to the warming room couldn’t lower its blade. It was frozen.
Still, there were no complaints, no injuries, and only one swimmer turned back.
Phil White, director of Kingdom Games, which co-hosted the event, said in an e-mail, “We overcame one daunting obstacle after another. Never easy to make a little history. But we did.”
Participants swear that the icy swims boost their immune system, burn calories, and give them a natural high that lasts for hours.
But there is also pain.
Kenn Lichtenwalter of New York fears “The Claw.”
“It’s where you can’t use your fingers,” he says. “Your hand just freezes into a claw position, so to be unable to get dressed and take your suit off or anything is a pretty awkward situation.”
There are other issues.
“Shrinkage is a problem,” says Yuta Tsuboi, originally from Tokyo. “People say it helps your fertility. People say that, but I don’t know.”
Like most competitors, Lichtenwalter doesn’t care who wins.
“I don’t really look at this as a competition,” he says. “It’s more of a challenge.”
There are no fancy trophies, but everyone receives a wooden medallion (it floats) and Vermont beef jerky from nearby Braults Slaughterhouse.
Iosif Plagov, 79, grew up in Russia and now lives in Chicago, where he ice swims in Lake Michigan.
“Why I do this?” he says. “Challenge and fun.
“When you go out from the cold water, you feel high, the blood goes fast and you feel like you take a glass of champagne. Scientists say there are endorphins in your body from the cold water. But my son says you are happy because you are still alive. Maybe he is right.”
Plagov also competed in the Finland event, where he was one of only five swimmers from the US.
“Maybe here nobody knows about this,” he says.
But some groups came prepared. The Nahant Knuckleheads sported their moniker on the backs of their bathrobes.
Mariia Yrjö-Koskinen, a Finland native and the president of the International Winter Swimming Association, swims her lap with pearls around her neck and a faux fur hat on her head.
At the marina warming area, nicknamed “the Endorphin House,” the vibe is relaxed and friendly. Smiling swimmers fog the windows and cheer every contestant who enters shivering. Camaraderie and kindness reign. One almost expects them to break out singing the overplayed “Let It Go,” from the movie “Frozen.”
Devon Clifford of Larchmont, N.Y., is trying to dry her swimsuit before the next race.
“What could be better?” says Clifford. “It’s good to live on the edge. My dad always says, if you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much space.”
Is she crazy?
“People call me crazy every day,” she says, “but there’s nothing more exhilarating than pushing your body beyond the limits. It’s such a great natural high.”
Outside the Endorphin House, it is time to check on Plagov. The eldest participant accelerated through the icy waters like a Boston driver who has just spied a shoveled-out parking spot.
Plagov emerged glowing, as if he had just discovered the Fountain of Youth. He stayed bare-chested and barefoot, in no rush to leave. Instead of worrying about pneumonia, Plagov was thinking nirvana. A human penguin.
“Remember when I told you about the endorphins and that feeling like drinking champagne?” he says giddily. “Well, this is it. This is it!”Stan Grossfeld can be reached at email@example.com.