Ice Swimming in the USA

Hi all - I know that this is a Marathon Swimmers Forum but there have been a few posts about Ice so here it goes:

Yesterday in an Ice Swimming competition in Germany, 22-year-old Colin Bushweller from Woodbridge VA broke the American record in the Ice KM (1,000 meters in waters under 41F or 5C in a 25-meter natural or frozen pool) by a whole minute with 13:24. This alone will not make the headlines of any newspaper but I find it interesting because:

  1. North America is still behind the Rest of the World when it comes to Ice Swimming, despite having the perfect climate for it and an incredibly more developed swimming industry. Today it is not possible to break the American record in America, because there are simply no competitions that allow it. Organizers can claim is because of safety reasons but surely that's also a concern in the rest of the world. The 13:24 of Colin is still far from the WR held by a 17-year-old Dutchman with 11:55. Colin actually lives in Prague and benefits from the people practicing there, which sounds like a great paradox to me - young European swimmers dream about swimming in US colleges, but now American ice swimmers need to go to Europe? When is this sport going to pick up in the USA and in Canada?

  2. Colin was never an Open Water or Master swimmer - he transitioned from College Swimming into Ice Swimming - again, because of his studies abroad. But this sounds so crucial to me as he has not lost any speed and has not had any gap years in his swimming career. If his time for the kilometer in a warm pool is/was say 10:30 and he manages to nail the cold water acclimatization, he could be targeting 12:00. This is the way for the sport to get faster and more professional, and we can also see it in the international events with younger and younger people from Netherlands, Germany, France, Russia, Argentina etc.

  3. I still find it amazing how such a tiny sport has two conflicting organizations (IISA, IWSA) that put together parallel events with different set of rules. You cannot break an Ice KM record with IWSA because their kilometer is in Open Waters and the distance is normally only allowed if the water is above 5C (although the World Championships seem to be an exception). I try to get visibility to this sport with both Spanish and American institutions, sponsors and press and it is so hard to explain why there are two different bodies that cannot agree and pursue professionalism - and Olympism - together.

  4. Lastly, I wonder about the "20% fat" rule of thumb I've heard since becoming involved with the sport. Colin has no fat whatsoever and I cannot talk about his recovery but it seems that cold training was enough to get him through the Ice KM. Are we (masters / open water / ice swimmers) just using this as an excuse not to be fitter? Would we be better off losing a few pounds?

Apologies for the ranting - just some food for thought / debate.




  • david_barradavid_barra NYCharter Member

    Admittedly, my aversion to all things “ice swimming” (especially the conflation with marathon swimming) is borderline pathological.... but I will add only this;
    It is quite obvious that any BMI discussion needs to include at least an attempt to factor exposure (time) into the equation.

    Did you really mean to imply that:
    Since this really buff dude swam an ice mile: marathon swimmers should loose weight (get in shape)?



    ...anything worth doing is worth overdoing.

  • emkhowleyemkhowley Boston, MACharter Member

    Hi Diego- I agree with your frustration about the slow growth of ice swimming in the USA. I think it's less about safety per se and that we're in a very different litigation environment here in the US than the rest of the world. Having formerly staged a few ice swim events (during one, a swimmer needed intensive follow-up care), I can tell you that it's very upsetting and, in fact, terrifying to watch swimmers be carted off to the emergency room not knowing whether they're going to be OK. The fear of being sued if something went wrong in subsequent events was too intense for my own personal risk-benefit analysis. I'm happy to help swimmers seeking to do an ice mile or ice kilometer, but I can't be the one putting my family's financial security on the line for it. I don't want to watch swimmers get hurt, but beyond that I don't want to lose my house over this.

    To your point about America having a developed swimming industry--I don't agree there. Sure, our pool swimming environment may be ahead of the world in terms of the top elite swimmers who compete at the olympics, but American understanding and embrace of all things open water is woefully behind the rest of the world. This is why I look to the UK when seeking a place to publish anything about open water and specifically marathon swimming. US book publishers and magazines have consistently told me no because they say there's no market. No market. Right.

    I think in 5 years time, this might be a different story, but for now, the American market is not welcoming to anything swimming if it doesn't have Michael Phelps, Missy Franklin or Katie Ledecky--or similar chiseled "swimmer's bodies" affiliated with it.


    Stop me if you've heard this one...
    A grasshopper walks into a bar...

  • kejoycekejoyce New EnglandSenior Member

    Hi Diego, a few thoughts:

    I'm going to start with the 4th point - The implications of your statement on body fat are pretty severe and I would suggest you think about it before going on. These sports (marathon swimming and ice swimming) have one of the most diverse set of body types you will find in any sport and that is a magnificent thing - we all work with the bodies we have to do these incredible things. There's no formula for it, and implying there is an ideal body type or fat percentage for it is counter to the entire history of the sport and easily disproven by looking at the most celebrated among us.

    Your other points leave much more room for discussion/debate :)

    I think the first point is primarily cultural. You're right in that the US is definitely behind compared to Europe. I've traveled abroad to swim ice miles, and the difference in the general acceptance in cold water swimming of any kind is night and day. In Dublin, there are places all over the city with staircases built going into the sea. In London, the culture of Lidos allows for anybody to readily access a cold-water pool. We don't have any of this in the US, with a couple exceptions (I would argue L street in Boston, and the San Francisco clubs though they don't get quite so cold - but even in Boston we occasionally get the rescue called on us when we swim in cold water because people think we're in trouble). I think we've made progress in the last decade (we do have some American ice milers, and the Coney island and VT events), but as a general rule most Americans treat this as a very weird thing.

    I also think Americans are also overly risk-averse, and it is a fact that securing insurance and medical support are a lot of effort and met with red tape here. In Boston, we are no longer allowed to use our (perfect-for-the-event) facility to do ice miles mostly because the local government doesn't want the liability.

    I find the IWSA/IISA dichotomy, and the issue of racing the ice kilometer, very interesting. The organizations co-existed with no overlap in distance for a while. Over time IISA has incorporated shorter distances, and IWSA has incorporated longer distances. The rules of the organizations reflect their origins. IISA, coming from a history of ice mile, allows km events at any temperature and they put a stronger emphasis on competition at that distance. IWSA, coming from a history of shorter distances, puts a limit on water temperature for the km and downplays the competitive aspect of the distance. Personally I find it difficult to say that while an ice mile should never be a competitive distance because it's dangerous, the km is a free-for-all... 1km in 0C is still a dangerous undertaking, especially for those who are newer to the sport and in it just to win vs in it because they enjoy the challenge. I strongly believe it should be a two-to-three year process to train for an ice km or ice mile. When we hosted an ice kilometer event in Boston (it was cancelled the day of because high winds made the course unsafe), we vetted every swimmer individually to make sure they were up to the challenge. We turned down a couple people who we know personally very well, just because they didn't have a full season under their belt yet. I think my point is, event organizers should absolutely be able to make the decision of how much risk they're taking on, and setting a temperature limit on the km a la IWSA is a legitimate reflection of that idea. For the same reason, it's unlikely VT will ever feature a 1km event because few if any of us want to take on that risk.

    At the end of the day I'm super happy for Colin! He is lucky to have studied in a place that has a good culture of cold water swimming, and he's super fast. That's a great combo. I'm happy that there are competitive events for the 1km in all water temperatures. I just can't fault IWSA for imposing temp limits. If you want to break an IISA record, go to an IISA event.

  • kejoycekejoyce New EnglandSenior Member

    My post was in draft for a long time so I didn't see @emkhowley post before mine - but yeah I think the US risk aversion/cost of insurance comes from the litigation environment. It's not great.

  • emkhowleyemkhowley Boston, MACharter Member

    @kejoyce said:
    My post was in draft for a long time so I didn't see @emkhowley post before mine - but yeah I think the US risk aversion/cost of insurance comes from the litigation environment. It's not great.

    You were far more articulate in sharing my thoughts there @kejoyce. Thanks for taking the time to answer more fully on all points. I agree with everything you wrote there.

    Stop me if you've heard this one...
    A grasshopper walks into a bar...

  • GlobalSwimmerGlobalSwimmer New York NYMember
    edited January 2020

    Thank you all for the responses, all fair and interesting points.

    • No offense or "severe statements" intended re BMI, I know that is a broader topic especially when it comes to OWS. I am yet to find an answer as to who the best marathon swimmer is: the fastest in a given distance, or the one capable of enduring the longest/coldest/hardest swim. Anyway, not the debate I was after.

    • I get the insurance and risk aversion in the US - but that has not stopped other businesses or activities - I am in Finance so I'd know! I believe / hope that whenever there are needs for regulation, there are business opportunities and it is only a matter of time till Ice Swimming gets there, too.

    • What I find absurd is that there are "IISA records" and "IWSA records", precisely. That'd be like having FINA, LEN and ISL different world records in standard swimming. What is worse, the mentioned IISA German Open was in LCM and the records are mixed with SCM times. A sport aiming to be professional cannot afford this.

    All this said, I do think that the event in Vermont is excellent and a great training ground for longer international events, and I hope to attend this year again. And so was Coney Island, until it was interrupted.

    See you in the ICE!

  • kejoycekejoyce New EnglandSenior Member

    All in all I think we're on the right track, if a little slow, in the US. It feels a little silly having duplicate records, yes, but I think the sport is young and growing fast and eventually we'll figure out how to harmoinze it.

    @GlobalSwimmer you're going to Bled, yes? Let's catch up over there!

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