The origins of ice swimming, also sometimes referred to as winter swimming, trace back to the 1500s where the practice was used alternatively as both a religious ceremony and as part of a cool down after spending time in a sauna. Today, the activity is most commonly practiced as part of a “polar bear plunge”, an event where people will gather as a group of individuals or as part of a “polar bear club” to jump into frigid water together, often as a New Year’s celebration or to raise money for a charitable cause. While many of the people that attend the large annual gatherings do so as a tradition or simply for recreation, others consider the practice to be a legitimate sport and are lobbying the Olympic committee to have it included in its winter games.
The two organizations pushing hardest for this are the International Winter Swimming Association (IWSA) and the International Ice Swimming Association (IISA). These two organizations were founded in 2006 and 2009 respectively and work to organize official competitions at various international sites that have a climate conducive for ice swimming in wintertime. Many of the official rules the two organizations have drafted are similar with a few minor differences. For example, the IWSA will break up its races into three groups: “Coldwater” races where the water temperature is 41-48° F (1000m maximum), “freezing water” races in the 36-41° F range, (450m maximum) and “ice water” competitions in the 28-36° F range with a maximum distance of 200M. The IISA rules are somewhat less strict but they do require similar safety precautions and a maximum temperature of 41° F for all competitions. One thing that is uniformly forbidden for official competitions however, is a neoprene scuba suit. Only goggles, a latex cap and standard swimwear are permitted.
Despite the safety precautions, this is not an activity without some risk. Sudden immersion into these kinds of temperatures elicits a cold shock response causing sudden, involuntary inhalations which can put someone at risk of inhaling water and drowning. Also, as the blood naturally moves away from the skin to keep the internal organs as warm as possible, the strain this puts on the heart to compensate can lead to cardiac arrest, especially in those that already have a cardiovascular condition. Hypothermia is actually not a major risk due to the strict oversight from the safety officials on hand. Even at a temperature of 32° F, it would take approximately 30 minutes for a healthy individual to be at risk of succumbing to hypothermia. Alternatively, ice swimming has been said to offer such benefits as a stronger immune system and circulation, as well as burning calories. While it’s certainly an activity that requires as much caution as any other extreme sport, it is relatively safe for an experienced swimmer. With the 2022 Winter Olympics weeks away, it will likely be at least another 4 years before the best of the best are competing for a gold medal, but it is already a sport attracting a following around the world.