In Newport, Vermont, near the border with Canada, Ginny Peck, 76, carefully enters Lake Memphremagog. The temperature is just above freezing and she is competing in the American ice swimming “Olympics”.
“I think I’m a cold person to start with,” Peck told AFP, after finishing the 50-meter freestyle at the Memphremagog Winter Swimming Festival, which takes place on Saturday and Sunday.
This is her fourth time participating in the annual event, which began in 2015 and has more than 120 enduring souls participating this year.
Peck, from the northeastern US state of New Hampshire, wears only goggles, a cap and a bathing suit as she crawls through 34-degree Fahrenheit (1.1 degree Celsius).
No wetsuits are allowed in the 75-foot pool which has been carved out of the frozen freshwater glacial lake.
On the sidelines, curious onlookers stand in the snow, wearing thick winter jackets, thermals, hats and gloves to cheer on the participants, aged 14 to their late 70s.
“I think I’ve always been comfortable with the cold,” Peck says. “I love a challenge. I’m in a hurry when I get out of this water.”
When she exits, she heads straight for a small building by the lake. There, Peck and other contestants are wrapped in blankets and towels. They put their feet in buckets of lukewarm water. Some shiver while others share laughs with their friends.
Swimmers flock to Newport from all over the United States and Canada. Some are experienced cold water swimmers while others are here just to try it once.
– Smiles and shivers –
“We have over 100 swimmers from all over the country, and a lot of them have been here before, a lot of them are new,” said event founder Philip White, 73.
Categories include the 25-meter freestyle, 200-meter freestyle, 25-meter breaststroke and 25-meter butterfly, as well as relay races.
Even at 18, Vera Rivard is one of the most experienced swimmers. She swam the Triple Crown of open water swimming, which includes the English Channel, the Catalina Channel off Southern California and the Manhattan Island Marathon in New York.
Rivard, also from New Hampshire, explains how she and her sister are preparing for Lake Memphremagog.
“Basically, we lower the temperature in the fall until the lakes freeze over near our house. Then we fill our tub with ice from the outside, then we enter the tub with water cold inside,” she told AFP.
Not all swimmers are as expert as Peck or Rivard. Many don’t finish their swim and most need an escort to take them to the warming hut, but almost everyone leaves the water with a smile.
For the moment, this ice swimming competition is the only one in the United States. White, however, hopes to organize more.
“We are looking for other sites in Canada and elsewhere in the United States so that we can establish the Federation of ice pools to do these swimmings throughout the winter,” he explains to AFP.
So what do the winners of the American ice swimming “Olympics” get? Medals, yes, but also maple syrup and beef jerky.