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Ice Swimming: A Natural High You've Really Got To Earn

PJ Browne
By PJ Browne
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The race might be over but the ordeal is not. There's still the recovery. It might be the toughest part of all. Swimmers step out of the frigid water and are promptly assisted. Numb feet are unable to slip easily into footwear. Numb hands can't tie zips. The immediacy of the assistance is not an overreaction, it's a necessity. The lowering of their body temperature must be halted. Reactions vary from competitor to competitor but all are treated the same.

Immediately, they are taken to phase one of the recovery process, a tent where warm water is poured over their body and they are covered in hot towels. Phase two takes place in a sauna. There's also a hot tub, which appears to have elicited much excitement. It's a novelty, a welcome one.

On a Saturday morning late last month, on the outskirts of Armagh town, took place the National Ice Swimming 1km Championships. Hardy souls from around the country – and beyond – begin to congregate from 8 am. It's a crisp morning. The sun hasn't peered over a nearby warehouse when the first race gets underway. It probably wondered what these individuals were at when it eventually did.

The facilities at Wild Water Armagh – essentially an outdoor pool in the backyard of Ian Conroy – are superb, they are not replicated everywhere for such events.

Both men and women, sometimes together, race over 40 lengths of the two-lane, 25m pool throughout the day wearing just swimming togs, goggles and a single hat.

Times vary from a little under 13 minutes to over 23. Conor Turner – recently returned from finishing second at the World Ice Swimming Championships in Germany – is the star attraction, taking on James Leitch of Scotland.

The water is 3.7 degrees. A temperature of five degrees or lower is required for an ice swimming event. Calling the conditions warmer than previous weeks, where it was around two degrees, feels wrong, it's just not as cold.


Medals will be handed out at the end of the day but the race is not just a battle against the opposition, it's also an inner one

Conor Turner tries not to think about the cold and just swims as fast as he can – easier said than done. Tiffiny Quinn concentrates on her stroke and repeats a mantra - 'I am warm, I am warm' or 'The cold gives me strength.'


For Caitriona Kehily, the opening lengths are tough. 'Your chest constricts, you can't breathe properly. You feel your fingers, toes and face tingle and sting then this spreads to the top of your head.' Between 100m to 200m into the swim, she begins to settle as her breathing regulates. The next 300m is tolerable, but it's then the personal battle begins.


The second 500m is all about mental strength – focusing on your stroke keeping your stroke rate up and stretching out as your stroke becomes short and slow because your muscles contract in the cold. You also lose complete feeling in your hands and feet - and maybe some of your arms and legs - so it is really hard to know how you are swimming. I find it hard to swim in a straight line in the cold!

Though motivations for first taking up ice swimming vary – Tiffiny Quinn was challenged by a friend, Conor Turner wanted to do something new after years of pool swimming, it was a natural progression for Caitriona Kehily from open water swimming – reasons for loving it are very similar.

Everyone talks of the natural high they get - 'the happy, giddy feeling' – but there's also the strong sense of community which appeals.


'The endorphin rush that comes after recovery is addictive. That and the people involved with this sport are the loveliest you could ever meet and that's globally,' beams Tiffiny Quinn.

'There's a real team feeling to ice swimming – you have to look after each other it is an extreme sport and everyone needs to watch themselves and mind each other. We all help each other with recovery, words of encouragement, shouting at each other while we swim,' tells Caitriona Kehily.

That sense of support isn't just informal, it's very much regimented at the National Championships. Every swimmer has a 'second', someone designated to assist them once their race is over. A briefing has to be attended by the swimmer and their second. Paperwork has to be signed off, medical forms submitted. Chances are not taken.


There's also an official stalking each swimmer up and down the pool, ensuring their stroke rate does not dramatically drop. They may have to be pulled from the water if it does.

It's behind the scenes, during the recovery process, where the support structure is most appreciated. Swimmers might be out of the water but relief from the cold is still some way off.

Conor Turner calls recovery 'unpleasant' and the most physically and mentally draining part of the experience. Tiffiny Quinn has experienced 'violent shakes, nausea and disorientation' along with a feeling akin to having her limbs stabbed with a knife.


Caitriona Kehily once endured a moment which caused 'slight concern': looking down and seeing that her feet had turned black.

At one point I just complained about my hands and they were very reassuring saying that it would pass. I was also slightly concerned about my black feet but I was assured this was normal and all would resume natural colour in due course. I felt my blood pressure dip after about 5 minutes and you get cold from the inside out – this is a weird experience but I knew it was coming so wasn’t alarmed. Then comes the violent shivering but I knew once I hit that stage I was okay and through the worst of it.

The natural high swimmers hit after recovery is a major attraction of the sport but not one which is easily attained. It is perhaps that requirement to earn it which makes it even more appealing.


Watch: 'This Is My Second Home. Without The Hercules Club, I Wouldn't Be Alive Today

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