Frigid on the Fringe

Winter swimming popularity on the rise as the mercury drops

By Tristan Scott
Mark Johnston. Courtesy photo

One way to test your mettle in winter is to sign up for a penguin plunge or some other iteration of the icy ablution – even if just for an instant, splish-splashing in freezing cold water is a bracing experience.

But other, more stoic swimmers actually carve pools out of frozen lakes and race one another, jet-setting around the globe to chase frigid waters and like-minded cold-water competitors.

In the United States, the nascent sport of winter swimming is only just beginning to gain momentum, but it’s more popular abroad, especially in Russia, Scandinavia and China.

And in Polson, winter-swimming champion Mark Johnston is something of a big fish in a little pond – even if that pond is Flathead Lake, the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi.

Last month, Johnston, 55, competed in the United States Winter Swimming Championship in the Hudson River, just to the north of the George Washington Bridge in Manhattan. He won the 25- and 50-meter breaststroke and the 200-meter freestyle, placing second in the 25-yard freestyle and third in the 50- and 100-yard freestyle events.

In addition to water temperatures around 37 degrees, swimmers battled chop and current in the Hudson River, while winter swimming rules dictate no wetsuits, and most open-water competitors opt to wear Speedos and swimming caps.

Then on Valentine’s Day, Johnston competed in the Scandinavian Winter Swimming Championship in Skellefteå, Sweden, about 75 miles from the Arctic Circle, where recent temperatures recently dipped to -38 degrees.

The event drew more than 300 participants, and Johnston earned three gold medals.

“It’s funny to all of a sudden be doing incredibly well in these events and be considered a winter swimming champion,” Johnston said recently, having returned to Polson and his backyard training lake. “There are certainly faster people than me, but hell, they didn’t show up. And who knows how Michael Phelps would handle the freezing water. It’s not for everyone.”

You can say that again.

Although popular in northern countries in Europe and Asia (China’s winter swimming association has 1.2 million members), 2016 marked only the second U.S. Winter Swimming National Championships.

The World Championships will be held in Siberia in March, and while Johnston wishes he could attend, it’s not logistically feasible.

But Johnston is grateful for the opportunity to compete in a pair of major winter-swimming events this year, and said he’s most proud to have represented the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. Johnston is not a tribal member, but last year he asked for special permission from the tribal council to represent the Tribes when he competed at the inaugural U.S. Winter Swimming Championship in Lake Memphremagog, in Newport, Vermont.

In Sweden, the announcers declared that the event had drawn competitors from 17 nations around the globe, including the CSKT.

“I really enjoy being an ambassador for the tribes,” he said. “Even though I am a non-native, I am honored to compete under the Flathead Nation flag.”

Johnston has been a competitive swimmer and coach for years, but his interest in open-water swimming and, most recently, cold-water winter swimming, is a burgeoning passion.

Competitively, he’s a natural, but he’s still trying to hone his skills and technique in the cold water.

As he starts dabbling in longer distances, he’s becoming increasingly aware of the physical limitations of swimming in freezing water.

“In Vermont, I was able to swim on adrenaline and competitive juices, and while I got cold I am such a competitive guy that I didn’t even think about it,” he said. “In New York, competing in the 200 was a different experience. The way to stay warm is to go fast but you can’t sprint a 200, so when I started doing the longer races I really felt the cold.”

Johnston said the ultimate achievement in extreme winter-swimming is the “Icy Mile,” which only 140 or so people have completed – a full mile in water that is 40 degrees or less.

If anyone can do it, Johnston can – he’s just not sure he wants to.

“During my first 200-meter race, I realized I wasn’t enjoying myself. It was too cold. During my second 200-meter race I was completely dialed in mentally and afterward I thought, ‘I could go further,’” he said. “But at some point physiology wins. I don’t think you can really acclimatize yourself after a certain point. I don’t want to find that point.”