Ice day for a swim: Braving America’s ice water ‘Olympics’

IN NEWPORT, Vermont, near the border with Canada, 76-year-old Ginny Peck gingerly steps into Lake Memphremagog. The temperature is just above zero and she’s competing in America’s ice swimming “Olympics”.
“I think I’m a cold person, to begin with,” Peck tells AFP, after completing the 50m freestyle at the Memphremagog Winter Swim Festival, which took place on Saturday and Sunday.
It’s the fourth time she has entered the annual event, which started in 2015 and has more than 120 hardy souls taking part this year.
Peck — from the northeastern US state of New Hampshire — wears just goggles, a cap and swimsuit as she does the front crawl through waters of 34°F (1.1°C).
No wetsuits are allowed in the 75ft pool that has been cut out of the frozen freshwater glacial lake.
On the sidelines, curious spectators stand in snow, wearing thick winter jackets, thermals, hats and gloves as they cheer on participants, ranging in age from 14 to late 70s.
“I think I’ve always been com-fortable with cold,” says Peck. “I love a challenge. I get a rush when I get out of that water.”
When she does get out, she heads straight to a small building on the side of the lake. There, Peck and other competitors are wrapped in blankets and towels. They put their feet in buckets of warm water. Some shiver while others share laughs with their friends.
The swimmers flock to Newport from all over the US and Canada. Some are experienced cold-water swimmers while others are here just to try it once.
“We have over 100 swimmers from around the country, and many of them have been here before, many of them are new,” explained event founder Philip White, 73.
Categories include the 25m freestyle, 200m freestyle, 25m breaststroke and 25m fly, as well as relay races.
Even at 18, Vera Rivard is one of the more experienced swimmers. She has swum the Triple Crown of open-water swimming, which includes the English Channel, the Catalina Channel off Southern California and the Manhattan Island marathon swim in New York City.
Swimmers compete in the 25m hat competition during the Memphremagog Winter Swimming Festival in Newport on Saturday
Rivard, also from New Hampshire, explains how she and her sister prepare for Lake Memphremagog.
“We basically ride the temperature down in the fall until the lakes freeze over near our house. And then after that we fill our bathtub with ice from outside and then get in the bathtub with cold water in it,” she tells AFP.
Not every swimmer is as expert as Peck or Rivard. Many don’t finish their swims and most need an escort to take them to the warming hut, but almost everyone leaves the water with a smile.
At the moment, this ice swimming competition is the only one in the US. White hopes to organise more, however.
“We are looking for other sites in Canada and elsewhere in the US so that we can establish the Federation of Ice Pools to do these swims throughout the winter,” he tells AFP.
So what do the winners of America’s ice swimming “Olympics” receive? Medals, yes — but also maple syrup and beef jerky.