‘Totally cold’ is not too cold for winter swimmers competing in a frozen Vermont lake

NEWPORT, Vt. — Taking a dip in a frozen lake and swimming laps may not be a good time for everyone, but for winter swimmers who return year after year to a lake in northern Vermont near the Canadian border, there’s nothing better.

The 10th annual Memphremagog Winter Swimming Festival kicked off Friday with the 200-meter freestyle race in a narrow pool cut from the ice. But the party started on Thursday and on Friday morning some of the 180 participants swam a lap wearing a decorated hat.

“It was amazing. It’s the highlight of my year,” said Andie Nelson of Arlington, Virginia, after swimming 25 meters (27 yards) in the hat race. “It makes me happy.”

She planned to participate in all the events over three days and said it’s more about the people and camaraderie than the icy water.

Ted Hirsch, 63, of Boston, and Ed Gabriels, 62, of Germantown, New York, have been competing against each other for about seven years. This year, Gabriels defeated Hirsh in the 200 meter freestyle.

A group of women from Canton, Ohio, called the Buckeye Bluetits, range in age from 40 to about 80 years old and returned for their fourth year. They swim year-round at Meyers Lake at home, but wouldn’t miss the opportunity to swim in Vermont, in what organizers say is one of the coldest winter swims in the world.

β€œIt’s the atmosphere. We have so much fun here and we are among friends,” said Margaret Gadzic.

Winter and ice swimming is defined by organizers as swimming in water of 41 Fahrenheit (5 degrees Celsius) or lower. The International Winter Swimming Association lists nine such events around the world this season on its website, with Memphremagog being the only one in the US. Other competitions took place in Sweden, Poland, Switzerland and Belgium, with one scheduled to take place in Estonia in March.

“Our water temperature is 30.5 degrees (negative 0.8 degrees Celsius). It’s microscopic, muddy. We call it ‘completely cold’ and it’s the coldest – one of the coldest waters and coldest swims in the world,” said Phil White, the director of Kingdom Games, who added that it is the only 80-foot competitive ice pool in all of America.

Swimmers were escorted to the frozen lake in bathrobes and stripped off to their suits just before entering. When they were done, the escorts handed them towels and robes before walking them to a nearby heating building.

This year, swimmers came from as far away as Mexico and England, as well as California, Arizona, Texas, the Northeastern US and British Columbia.

Nelson, of Virginia, was so excited that she didn’t get much sleep before the 200-meter swim Thursday night. She said she inhaled some water and felt nauseous after eating lunch an hour earlier, so she had to slow her pace.

β€œIt was still fun,” she said.