As It Happens

Oldest man to swim ice mile says January dip in Ireland's River Shannon was 'fairly cold'

Ger Purcell thought his friend was out of his mind when he suggested that the 66-year-old Irish man should continue his longtime summer pastime of swimming outdoors into the winter months. Now he holds the Guinness World Record for the oldest male athlete to complete an ice mile.

66-year-old Ger Purcell from Limerick, Ireland, completed the ice mile in 43 minutes

Ger Purcell holds the Guinness World Record for the oldest male athlete to complete an ice mile. (Deirdre Power)

Ger Purcell thought his friend was out of his mind when he suggested the 66-year-old Irish man should continue his longtime summer pastime of swimming outdoors into the winter months.  

"I said, 'Look at my eyes. Do I look mad? Like, do you think I'm going to swim through the ice for the winter?'" Purcell told As It Happens guest host Peter Armstrong. 

But he took his friend's advice, and now Purcell holds the Guinness World Record for the oldest male athlete to complete an ice mile, swimming in water just below 5 C

 "It is fairly cold," he said. 

Lockdown pastime

Purcell has been swimming outside for the past 25 years. He ordinarily migrates to indoor swimming pools when the cold weather arrives. 

But in 2020, COVID-19 shut down those facilities. So Purcell stayed outside, continuing to swim in the River Shannon near his home in Limerick, Ireland. 

Purcell plunges into the River Shannon. (Deirdre Power)

Purcell said the water temperature over the summer months isn't exactly tropical — usually sitting at around 16 C. But in December, the water temperature dipped to as low as 2 C.

At that point, Purcell was already intent on completing the ice mile, so he kept training. 

"You'd have to be doing maybe 600 metres in that temperature, you know, to just keep fitness up," he said. 

The plunge

The rules under the International Ice Swimming Association are fairly simple. The water temperature must be below 5 C and the swimmer can only wear a swimsuit, goggles and one swimming cap. 

On Jan. 30, Purcell plunged into the River Shannon for his attempt at the ice mile. The river was 4.93 C, according to Guinness World Records

Purcell had to swim 200-metre lengths continuously until he completing his mile (1.6 kilometres).

Purcell warms up after a chilly swim. (Deirdre Power)

Purcell said he was feeling good as he headed into the final 400 metres. 

"I came around the buoy and I said, 'I'm going to do it.'"

Then, he made the mistake of looking up. The sun was in his eyes, and he got a mouthful of ice-cold water. 

"I kind of got a bit disorientated and, you know, I lost it for a few minutes. So then that's when the pressure came on in the last 400," he said. 

I came around the buoy and I said, 'I'm going to do it.'- Ger Purcell, ice mile record holder

Purcell finished the challenge in 43 minutes 28 seconds, becoming the oldest man to complete the ice mile. The record was previously held by a 64-year-old Russian man. 

Purcell said he needed help getting out of the water, because his legs and hands felt "like blocks of ice."

The reaction to his feat has been "absolutely phenomenal," Purcell said — especially from his three children and seven grandchildren. 

"My son thinks I'm mad. Well, he did think I'm mad, but he's delighted now. He's very proud of me," he said. 

Purcell says he never could have done it without the support of his wife Mary, who helped him warm up with hot stew and tea after his swims. 

He's even been back in the water since the ice mile, including an eventful swim on the day he spoke to As It Happens.  A swan swam up behind him and pecked at his back, he said. 

 "I think he was coming for my autograph, you know?" Purcell said. 


Written by Sarah Jackson. Produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. 
 

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