My first experience in icy water occurred in Minnesota in March 2007, when I participated in a Polar Bear Plunge for Special Olympics Minnesota, jumping into a frozen lake. Five years, five more dips and 5,800 miles later, I’ve swam in a hometown lake and the Sea of Japan, been a polar bear and a walrus, received a first place gold medal and helped raise $600,000 for Special Olympics Minnesota. My amazing family and friends have always supported me and often joined me in this chilly endeavor, and I’ve recently learned that an appreciation for “ice water swimming” can build fast friendships and earn you the respect of strangers across cultures.
On my second day in Vladivostok, I was taken on a tour around the city, and from my view atop a cliff, I happened to see a big hole cut out of the ice in a bay. As I stood there, pondering it, a man in a speedo walked over and swam a lap. A week later, the same day of the 5th annual Polar Plunge in my home town, I walked across the ice of the bay to get a better look. I thought I’d try to see if I could stick my feet and take a picture, so I could feel like I was participating in the fun at home.
Once down on the ice, it became obvious that this ice water swimming operation was much more sophisticated than I had realized. People kept coming and going from this shack-like area on the beach that had “Клуб Морж” on the door, and they kept telling each other “с легким паром” which is something you say to people at the banya (sauna) and roughly means “enjoy your steam.” Upon discovering that this was an organized club, I started talking to a woman standing on the shore, who’d just watched her daughter take a dip. “How much does this cost?” I asked, showing my complete ignorance of the situation. However, in the mix of Russian and English that followed, I explained how we do this in Minnesota, and she told me that her daughter and the other club members were in training, and that her daughter could help me take a swim if I wanted, and that it was fine I didn’t have a swim suit with me, my underwear would work great, and her daughter Natya would loan me a towel and sandals, and I should probably pay 50 rubles (less than $2), and Natya would be happy to take pictures for me, and, and… before I knew it I was swimming a lap, being toweled off by a new friend, being told to “enjoy my steam” by total strangers enjoying their own daily dose of exhilaration, and agreeing to join the club for their annual races in two weeks.
A gruff older man who seemed to be in charge, was not too pleased to have a non-club member American signing up, but my new friend Natya smoothed things over for me. I still felt a little bad for imposing on his race though, until two weeks later, when I was on the home stretch of the course and his was the loudest voice I heard urging me to swim faster. And he was certainly not the only skeptic. On the day of the race, a few older women were very concerned by the fact that I’d only swam the course once, and that a friend I’d brought along, a French expat, had never swam in ice water before. But this skepticism and concern only exaggerated how impressed all our fellow walruses and spectators were when we both did well enough to win gold medals in our age brackets.
We were congratulated repeatedly and handed cookies and cup after cup of tea (sometimes with a little vodka added in) as we dressed and warmed up again in the club house. I’d thought to bring along a picture from last year’s plunge in Minnesota, and enjoyed showing it to my new friends, who were rather bemused by our costumes and cause. The picture is now hanging on the wall in the Club Walrus office, and I couldn’t be happier.