Swimming in Antarctica – Do you have what it takes?

Last weekend I drove to Upstate NY to swim in a small lake, which gets cold way faster than the ocean down in the City. Water was at 50°F (or 10°C) and I tried to swim on my own on Saturday. I was feeling cold and miserable and I just managed to take a cold plunge before running back to the car and getting warm again. Johana looked at me and told me – “admit it, you are not an ice swimmer and the only reason you are swimming in Antarctica is because of your ambition and competitiveness”.

She was right, as she usually is, and this made me think again about the why and the how would a guy from the subtropical Canary Islands end up doing this. Next day I woke up determined, headed to the same lake and swim with a fellow cold swimmer for over 30 minutes. I could do it and just needed the push.

The chart below summarizes the hard and soft skills I think are required to be an ice swimmer:

Ice Swimming Checklist
  • Stubbornness: I have written about this before, and the only reason I have reached far in life is because of my ambition and drive – which some people prefer to call persistence, or stubbornness. When I registered my interest in the Antarctica swim a year ago, I had never swum in waters colder than 15°C. But I was determined to work my way down, and so have I.
  • Mileage: Some experts in ice swimming compare an “Ice KM” to a 10K race in warmer waters. Sure, you have to be used to the cold exposure but you also need to be in shape and have the stamina to keep it going. The million meters I've got on my shoulders this year surely help. Plus, given that I am not an expert ice swimmer, I’d rather be 15 minutes in 0°C degrees’ waters, than 30 minutes!
  • Passion: No doubt you need passion for this sport. The perils and effort that goes into open water and especially ice swimming are unparalleled. But remember, life is about finding your passion and purpose, and I have found mine. 
  • Low BPM: This is by no means a pre-requisite, but a “nice to have”. Bradycardia is the condition of those with a slower than normal heart rate (normally below 60bpm). It can be inherited and a serious problem, or it can be caused by regular and intense exercise (athletic heart syndrome). Spanish Indurain, one of the best cyclists in history, was famous for having a 28bpm. In ice swimming, hypothermia could trigger cardiac arrhythmia so a bigger heart can help prevent it. When I went to the doctor the other day for my EKG, he had to do it twice to believe my 40bpm.
  • 20% Fat: This is my favorite part. If you meet a Marathon Swimmer you would never believe what he is capable of, judging from the body type. In fact, when I tell people I have swum the English Channel, their eyes scan my body very quickly and inadvertently, looking for the six pack I used to have when I was 15 years old. No, we don’t need abs and yes, we can eat whatever just because we are swimmers (at least we love to think that!). I think there is a lot of placebo effect in this (just like with the lanolin!), but the general guidance to swim in the ice is to have at least 20% fat. I am good with that.
  • Bull’s attributes: Last but not least, to swim in Antarctica, you need to dare. In fact, the IISA logo reads “never be scared to dare”, and in life, success is reserved for the brave man. In Spain, we have a common expression, “con dos…”, referring to the attributes a bull is famous for. 

The last item of the checklist is a firm belief that you will do it. The more people you tell, the more you convince yourself, and the more chances you’ve got of being successful. 

So, I am telling you now, I am going to swim an Ice KM in Antarctica this month. Watch Me.