The freezing cold weather in this part of the world has lasted for more than a month now and most people cannot wait to see temperatures rise. For the country’s hardy men and women however the cold snap has brought new challenges. On Saturday they gathered on the bank of the Vltava River for an annual swimming competition called ‘Branické ledy’, after a former ice storage facility located on the riverbank. I went along to see them in action.
More than 80 people dressed in swimwear gathered on the snow-covered riverbank, watched by an admiring crowd of onlookers, all bundled up against the cold. The temperature hovered slightly above zero and the water in the Vltava River was just 2.7 degrees Celsius. The tradition of hardy men and women who take cold showers and exercise in harsh weather conditions to gradually adapt to the cold goes back to the beginning of the twentieth century and there is even a special term for it in Czech – ‘otužování’.
“I used to be ill a lot. I was depressed and I got a lot of medication, but it didn’t help. Then I started swimming in cold water and now I am 80 years old and I don’t take any pills at all. I take cold showers every day and it is like a drug for me. Of course, you don’t always feel like it, the water is cold, but once you get used to it, you can’t live without it.”
The competition consisted of five races, with the shortest track 100 metres long and the longest track one kilometre. Another enthusiastic participant was Jack Bright, an Englishman who joined the hardy fellows’ club in Prague about two years ago. Before he plunged into the freezing cold water for the 1000-metre track, he explained what it takes to train for winter swimming:
“You should gradually acclimatise by bathing in cold water. Then you take cold showers and afterwards you can start swimming outside, in the summer, when it is warmer, to get used to fresh, natural water. You have to respect the water and your body.”
What is the trick of surviving in freezing cold water? Is there a special swimming technique?
“To be honest, you just swim as fast as possible. I think crawl is the best stroke but some people prefer breast stroke. But there isn’t a trick as such. Everyone must start with shorter distances, get the body used to the shock, and once you acclimatize you can swim further and further. But the maximum you can spend in this water is 22 minutes when it is four degrees below zero. That is the absolute maximum.”
"It was nice! I don’t know how long it took, 18 minutes I guess. Now I am going to go and get some tea and some food.”
The winner of the race was David Čech, a long-distance swimmer who managed to cover the kilometre-long stretch in 11 minutes. But for those who took part in Saturday’s swim, winning was clearly not of the utmost importance – beating the cold was the main feat.
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