Toronto

Ice swimming in Toronto: The freezing sport people are warming up to

While most people in the GTA are zipping up their parkas, trying to keep warm, others are stripping down to Speedos and jumping into Lake Ontario.

'It's painful at first, but after a while it feels beautiful,' says a GTA participant

Loren King and a group of ice swimmers brave 0 C water in Lake Ontario at Coronation Park in Oakville for the 2016 Winter Solstice Swim on Dec. 21. (Loren King)

While most people in Toronto are bundling up in parkas, trying to keep warm, others are stripping down to Speedos and jumping into Lake Ontario.

Ice swimming, also known as winter swimming, is an extreme sport gaining popularity across the GTA and around the world.

And we're not talking quick dips. It involves distance swimming in water 5 C or colder.

Why?

"It's invigorating," said Hamilton-based ice swimmer Loren King. "It makes you feel alive."

King, who also teaches political science at Wilfrid Laurier University, started diving into frigid Lake Ontario a few years ago to prepare for a swim across the English Channel. "I wanted to make sure I was prepared for the changes in temperature."

Then he was hooked.

"Your body is pumping endorphins," he said. "It's painful at first, but after a while it feels beautiful."

King said more and more people are looking to get involved in cold swim clubs in the GTA.

King co-founded the Great Lakes Trust with Oakville-based open-water swimmer Madhu Nagaraja. The fund offers small grants to people working to sustain the heritage of the Great Lakes.

Nagaraja said more than 100 people came out to a 24-hour cold swim relay at Coronation Park in Oakville in November. The event was organized through Great Lakes Trust. He was surprised by the turnout. 

Nagaraja said ice swimming brings him joy and happiness and helps him reconnect with nature.

"I could be stuck in a house watching TV, or I could get out and enjoy the Canadian winter," he said. "We're destroying the planet, and this is one way to get connected back to the environment and start taking care of it."

Nagaraja, who has been ice swimming since 2013, has already swum across Lake Ontario and is training to swim across South America's Strait of Magellan in 2018.

He has experience swimming more than 30 minutes in 0 C water. 

Madhu Nagaraja, left, has been ice swimming with his teammates since 2013. (Madhu Nagaraja)

How do people stand it?

Rob Kent, president of the Lake Ontario Swim Team, said ice swimmers gradually build up their endurance like long-distance runners.

"Could you run a marathon today? Well, no," he said. "If you took the next six months and trained for it, could you run one? Well, yes."

He explained swimmers have to acclimatize their bodies. 

Kent said there are a handful cold swim clubs in the GTA. Most have between six and 10 members. 

South African ice swimmer Ram Barkai founded the International Ice Swimming Association in 2009. (Ram Barkai/Facebook)

South African open-water swimmer Ram Barkai started the International Ice Swimming Association in 2009 with a vision to formalize the sport and establish safety rules.

Barkai said the sport is growing globally, and more than 800 ice swimmers from 30 countries are registered as members of the association.

He implemented the "ice mile" benchmark, where swimmers work their way up to swimming 1.6 kilometres in water below 5 C, a distance he completed in -1 C Antarctica waters in 2008.

Competitive ice swimming events are taking place across the world, and Barkai is pushing to make it an Olympic and Paralympic sport by 2022.

He said the sport is "exploding," but since there are high risks, he wants it to grow safely.

"It's an extreme sport that usually brings with it an inhospitable environment," he said. "It requires more rules and regulations and education."

Loren King said ice swimming is a dangerous sport and people should not attempt it without proper training. (Loren King)

Serious risks

Though cold water pools and plunges in spas are touted to increase blood flow and reduce inflammation, people usually only immerse themselves for a few seconds.

Barbara Byers, public education director of The Lifesaving Society, said swimming in cold water for longer than that can put the body into shock.

"The cold can lead to gasping, and water can get into people's mouths and cause choking or drowning," she said.

Byers said swimmers are at risk of developing hypothermia after about 30 minutes. Even strong swimmers will struggle in cold water, since blood rushes from the extremities to the heart, making arm and leg movements extremely difficult.

For those looking to take the plunge for events like the Polar Bear Dip on Jan. 1, she suggests people keep their heads above water and have warm blankets and clothing waiting on shore.

Byers said having a support system is key, and ice swimming should never be attempted alone.

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