The icy midlife trend that’s taking ski resorts by storm

Katja Gaskell

Katja Gaskell

Stripping down to my bathing suit in sub-zero temperatures didn’t seem sensible at 9 o’clock on a snowy January morning, but swimmers from Samoëns Swim Club were already at the lake’s edge, breaking the thin layer of ice that it had formed on the surface overnight.

One by one, the group, wearing nothing more than swimsuits and silicone swim caps, effortlessly made their way into the icy 4℃ water with as much breeze as if they were taking a dip in the temperate Caribbean Sea.

He had arrived in the charming mountain village of Samoëns a day earlier, just in time to attend the final events of the fifth International Ice Swimming Championships. Located in the Haute-Savoie department of France, close to the Swiss border, it is the first time that the medieval town has hosted a championship.

This four-day event brings together nearly 500 competitors from 43 different countries, including South Africa, Morocco, and even Mongolia, with participants ranging in age from 13 to 78. Team GB arrived with an impressive 44 swimmers ready to take the chilly plunge. It’s a celebration of the coolest trend that’s taking the ski resorts by storm and British middle-agers like me.

A brave new trend

The benefits of cold water swimming have long been heralded in Scandinavian countries, but in recent years it has become one of the UK’s most sought after pastimes. Its popularity has been boosted by the likes of British endurance athlete Lewis Pugh and Dutch motivational swimmer Wim Hoff. British journalist and author Susannah Constantine (of Trinny and Susannah fame) now proudly calls herself a wild swimmer.

While precise statistics on how many outdoor swimmers there are in the UK today are hard to pin down (many enthusiasts are not members of a club, preferring to dip at will in local ponds, streams and seas), trend data from Google show that the number of swimmers who want to dive into cold water is increasing. The term “open water swimming near me” saw a 450 percent increase in search volume in the last year alone.

ice swimming

ice swimming

Preliminary results of the annual survey carried out by outdoor swimmer magazine also indicate growth, particularly with middle-aged women. Of the nearly 3,000 swimmers surveyed so far, 77 percent of those surveyed identified as female. The largest age category is 50-59 years, followed by 40-49.

I’m one of those many middle-aged women who turned to cold water when lidos and pools across the country were forced to close during the pandemic. And, as two-thirds of the women surveyed by outdoor swimmerI consider outdoor swimming “very important” to my sense of well-being.

After being a competitive swimmer through my mid-teens, I rediscovered my love of the water when I was pregnant with my oldest son. Swimming not only kept me in shape during my pregnancy and helped me get my jeans back on after my oldest was born, but it later provided tremendous mental relief during a period of crippling panic attacks after my son was born. daughter, my second son, and breast cancer. diagnosis, 41 years old, shortly after the birth of my third child.

But there’s a big difference between the kind of cold water diving I’ve tried and serious ice swimming. Despite the name, ice is not essential for the races held at Samöens, but according to the rules of the International Ice Swimming Association, events must be held in water temperatures of 5℃ or less, wearing only a silicone cap, a pair of glasses and a standard. swimsuit. Race distances at championships range from 50m to 500m in freestyle, breaststroke and butterfly. The blue ribbon event is the 1,000m freestyle.

The coolest midlife trend taking ski resorts by storm

The coolest midlife trend taking ski resorts by storm

world class women

Many of the swimmers participating in this year’s championships are former competitive athletes who have discovered the thrill of icy water. Cathy Munro, who celebrated her 60th birthday the same week as the event, has been a fierce swimmer from a young age and an aficionado of open water for the past decade. However, she was working as an emergency doctor during the pandemic which led to her ditching her wetsuit.

“I started swimming with members of my outdoor club and found it easier to not have to put my wetsuit on and take it off again,” says Cathy. “Sometimes it feels like you’re in a hail storm because your nerve sensors are firing, you feel very, very alive.”

Other competitors turned to swimming to help overcome life’s challenges. Kate Steeles, 53, who in 2021 was named World Open Water Swimming Woman of the Year, started cold-water activities 14 years ago when her husband left her. Since then, he has garnered numerous awards, including being only the third person in history to complete the Ice Sevens Challenge, an event that requires swimmers to complete seven different miles of ice on each of seven continents, one of which It should be in the water temperature below 1℃.

kate steeles - emily smailes

kate steeles – emily smailes

She also found solace in swimming after the untimely death of her only son, Daniel. “Swimming helps you cope, helps you find your way,” says Kate. “You never move on, but you learn to cope.”

Back at Lac aux Dames in Samoëns, local swimmers Rob and Carrie Wilmot are giving me advice, directing me to take long, slow breaths as I enter the water. I start to swim slowly away from the shore, pushing loose ice shards out of my way as I go.

I quickly lose feeling in my hands and feet, but any numbness is replaced by a sense of calm, so much so that I stop for a moment and float to the surface before returning to dry land. I’m only in the water for a couple of minutes, but when I come out I feel tingly and euphoric, and like I could take on the world. It’s a feeling I carry with me for the rest of the day. Now it’s clear to me why middle-aged people are chasing this new icy high.

take the decisive step

Ready to brave the cold? The following ski resorts offer Wim Hoff aspirants alternative ways to brave the ice.

Diving under the ice in Les Menuires, France

Freedive under the frozen Lac du Lou in Les Menuires under the watchful eye of a professional instructor. He pulls on a rope and sees how far he can get between the four access points carved into the ice that range from twenty to twenty feet between them. The good news is that for this experience you can wear a wetsuit.

Ice floating in Tignes, France

Are you still worried about the cold? Then try ice floating in Tignes, which you can enjoy fully kitted out in a dry suit. Float in the icy waters of Lake Tignes and admire the magnificent mountain scenery. The organizers promise that, in the words of the original ice queen Elsa, you’ll be able to sit back and leave it all.

Ice swimming Levi, Finland

Finns have long known about the benefits of soaking in ice cold water; the only difference is that they are usually thawed afterwards in a sauna. At the Finnish ski resort of Levi you can book a traditional sauna and ice bathing experience by the Ounasjoki river.

Katja Gaskell was a guest of Samöens Tourism ( Samoëns is an hour’s drive from Geneva airport. Go Massif organizes transfers from €65 per person for a round trip.

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