Winter Swimmers Brave The Ice In Lake Memphremagog

Feb 24, 2015

When the weather gets tough, the tough go swimming. Outdoors. In the winter. In bathing suits. And we’re not just talking about a quick penguin plunge. Hugging the shores of Lake Memphremagog, Newport has landed on the global map of places where swimmers race each other in pools carved out of frozen lakes.

Ice swimming has been popular for decades in Europe and Asia but it’s just catching on in America. And Phil White, a former attorney from Newport, wants to be first on the ice block.

The pool is a 25-meter rectangle cut into the frozen lake. It has a wooden liner and a generator powers an underwater bubbler to keep the 30 degree water from re-freezing.

So he invited athletes from all over the world to compete in the first American Winter Swimming Championships on Saturday.

White spent most of the morning swaddled in a down coat and balaclava hat, scurrying between the frozen lake, where preparations for the swim meet were underway, to a warm bar stool. This is not the first event he has organized to capitalize on the cold. His company, Kingdom Games, has already hosted a skating marathon and a pond hockey tournament. But the winter swim meet brought competitors from as far away as Finland and Latvia.

“So it gives a little bit of vibrancy and vitality to downtown Newport in the middle of the winter. All the action is at the ski areas. And it’s really, I think, appreciated that there are people coming into town and really valuing Newport at one of its best, which is a cold, cold winter,” White said.

Almost too cold, as it turned out. The pool is a 25-meter rectangle cut into the frozen lake. It has a wooden liner and a generator powers an underwater bubbler to keep the 30 degree water from re-freezing.
 

Workers create a swimming pool by carving a 25-meter rectangle out of frozen Lake Memphremagog. Newport hosted the first American Winter Swimming Championship this weekend.
Credit Herb Swanson / swanpix.com

But even with the bubbler at full tilt, ice chunks kept forming at the surface so the race had to be delayed by hours until the air temperature reached a balmy 18 degrees.

Wrapped in a down coat, Ranie Pearce, a long-distance open water swimmer from San Francisco, waited nervously for the moment when she would go indoors to change into her bathing suit. She didn’t expect to win because she doesn’t swim fast in winter water.

"You swim slower than you would in a pool. You lose control of your muscles and your mind says, 'Oh my God, what the hell am I doing here? Get me out of here!'" - Ranie Pearce, a long-distance open water swimmer from San Francisco

“You can’t, your body shuts down, it’s very hard,” she explained. “You swim slower than you would in a pool. You lose control of your muscles and your mind says, ‘Oh my God, what the hell am I doing here? Get me out of here!’ It’s very hard to overcome these impulses to get out, you know?” she said, laughing.

But none of the 40 swimmers who lowered themselves into the water on wooden ladders to compete in 25-, 50-, and 100-meter breast stroke and free-style events bailed out, or got hurt. They train for these events by swimming in frigid water a lot, and taking freezing cold showers.

Brynna Tucker wraps herself in a towel after competing in a winter swim meet in Lake Memphremagog.
Credit Herb Swanson / swanpix.com

After she swam, Brynna Tucker, who comes from Sutton, told her cheering section of friends and family that she had a great time, even though when the breath got knocked out of her, she swallowed some of the lake.

“It was awesome, it was awesome,” Tucker told her proud father and admittedly terrified mother. “You swim the way you would always swim, and you hope to get to the other side, and that’s it!”

Tucker didn’t place in the top three, but that wasn’t her goal. She actually enjoys the sensation of extreme cold on her body, as it releases endorphins and makes her feel oddly relaxed in the freezing pool. She hopes this inaugural event will help grow the sport in the United States so she doesn’t always have to travel to faraway places like Siberia and China to compete.

And in Newport, sports enthusiasts and tourism officials hope this won’t be the last time Phil White cuts a hole in the ice so that stoic swimmers can  test the limits of human endurance. 

View the final results for the American Winter Swimming Championships here.