Vivienne Rickman-Poole was invited to exhibt and speak at the 2016 Finnish Winter Swimming Championships held at Lake Lohja (Lohjanjärvi) which is a short distance outside Helsinki. She shares with us her experience of swimming in Finland's icy lakes and taking part in the Championships.
I was really looking forward to seeing the pool that had been cut out of the ice for the competition, it had been worked on for the last two weeks. There had been a thaw from the previous weeks -27ºC to +4ºC this week but the ice was very thick and everything was looking good. After I had been sent a youtube clip of The World Winter Swimming Championships in Lapland and seen the ice pool there, I had been in convinced that this was going to be nothing like it… a pool cut in ice?? Don’t be ridiculous! Only it was exactly as the clip I had been sent, a pool (complete with lanes) cut int the ice with steps in on either side! Amazing… and a little daunting. I made that mistake of putting my hand in to test the water and declared it ‘felt ok’! Would I live to regret it?
I wanted to try the icy water ahead of the competition so I took my first dip, Finnish style in an ice hole. When the lake is frozen over, it’s traditional to make a hole in the ice close to the sauna where you can dip in and out the water and then visit the sauna (pronounced sow-na). We changed at the sauna and walked down to the ice hole, the metal steps into the water are bitterly cold and do nothing to prepare you for what is coming. The first time you drop your shoulders under and do a few strokes it feels ok, but the cold quickly creeps into the extremities, this is then followed by getting in and out several times, each dip became more tingly, but also intensely painful, the last time I felt like I was in there for barely a second before it hurt so much I had to get out shaking my hands to try and feel them again. Apparently because the water is pumped constantly to keep it moving (to stop the ice forming) it is far colder. I was so grateful of the close proximity of both sauna and hot showers!
The Championships opened on the Friday evening with the colourful arrival of lots of winter swimming clubs, adorned in specially made robes and fancy hats (which they all swim in!). I did my first 25m in the pool as part of a International relay team, from The Netherlands, UK and Finland. We all felt fantastic afterwards despite being beaten, somehow the experience of the icy water was far more exhilarating that any competition.
Saturday was all about individual 25m’s, it is competition rules that you must wear a swim hat and / or warm hat for your swim and not totally submerge your head, if you do you will be disqualified, it is serious stuff! You can only swim breaststroke and only one length of 25m in the day, all in just a costume. When you put all this together you start to get an idea of just how cold the water is. There were also three divers on the poolside ready to jump in to retrieve anyone who went under the surface… Yikes!!
What I found totally wonderful is no one cared what temperature the water was, I heard someone ask if they knew and the organiser said that the Institute didn’t have a thermometer so they couldn’t measure it… Päivi explained to me that everyone swims all year and they have come to swim, they do not care about the temperature, is it very cold! There was an estimation that the pool would be about +1 or 2ºC.
There was nothing remotely egotistical about the event, it had the vibe of fun, craziness, a winter carnival. The eldest swimmer was a veteran of these events called Erkki, who at 91 years old was an inspiration to all, winning his event! The youngest was only 11 and we even saw a heavily pregnant woman swim.
My event was at 12.30. It is a meticulously organised affair, with huge heated changing containers, bags for your kit (carried to the finish for you). A basket for your shoes and Robie at your lane (also carried to the finish for you). The crowd cheer everyone on, no matter if you are dipping into the water to try out how cold it is or racing Finland’s top swimmers. Everyone is equal and gets a trophy for taking part, for someone who isn’t keen on events I was loving every minute of it. I found today's swim easier than last nights, perhaps I was getting used to the water or perhaps the adrenalin of the event had kicked in. I so wanted to swim again, but it was time for my hot shower.
Sunday was all about the club team relays and apparently this was the main event. The rules are strict and entire teams will protest disqualifications, obviously in that fun jovial way that the event seemed to have. TV, cameras, music, this was a quite a spectacular experience and I can’t wait to return again!
I would like to thank Kisacallio Sports Institute who hosted the Champoinships, VisitLohja (Lohja Tourist Board) and Suotem Latu (The Outdoor Association of Finland) who funded my exhibition and visit to Finland. I am also very grateful to Päivi Pälvimäki for her continued interest in my work and hospitality during my stay.