Craig Holmes
All year round outdoor swimmer and occasional acedemic.

Here in the ever so United Kingdom, it is coming towards the end of the winter swimming season, which means it is also coming towards the end of the justify-why-you-do winter swimming season. My own personal favourite example of this so far this year happened during a medical exam in my GP’s office, which I needed to have done for an ice swimming event. About half-way through I was asked if the swim was part of a triathlon as he’d never had to do a medical for a swim-only event before, at which point I explained that the cold water the medical form referred to would be around five degrees, rather than the cool summer water temperatures he was obviously thinking about.

“Oh. OK,” he said. And then: “Why?”. Now, bear in mind this is a doctor who, I have to imagine, must have seen all manner of self-inflicted injuries caused by a combination of human misadventure, curiosity and, on some occasions, a selection of mundane household objects, and yet I have difficulty believing that on any of those occasions did he ask that question with quite so much bafflement.

This reaction is a fairly common one, and if I’m being completely honest, it is one that sometimes I’m probably trying to provoke. After all, as most all-year round swimmers know, one of the most important parts of the post cold water swim process (alongside relatively minor things like ensuring your body has returned to the optimal temperature for human functionality such as the ability to use a selection of mundane household objects) is to check that someone had taken a photo of the swim. “If it isn’t on the Internets,” one of you will light-heartedly remark, “did it even happen?”. Usually this is a person with some advanced form of ICT training and who knows fully well there is not more than one Internet and yet this is how they are, but we ignore this and laugh and feel pleased at how self-aware we are and then four seconds later we are checking the exact same thing because seriously I don’t know for sure that isn’t how it works and am certainly not about to risk it.

So anyway, you have your photos and you share them online and you wait for someone called something like Simon Turnbull to pop up and say something like, “You must be mad.” Notice, no exclamation mark or emoji; a clear and professional assessment of you as a human being. (To be clear, I’m using the name Simon Turnbull to protect the identity of a real person, whose name is also Simon Turnbull but it’s a different one who lives in Worcester). 

Simon Turnbull belongs to a group of people who just can’t understand people enjoying things that they themselves do not enjoy (“Just attempted making my first sourdough” “Linda, you can buy these in shops, please seek medical help”). Now, not that you need to justify yourself to anyone, and quite aside from the fact that a photo showing people doing a voluntary activity with big grins should probably explain the situation fully, but sometimes, as with the doctor, I don’t immediately have a particularly coherent response and it usually ends up sounding something like, “Mumble mental health benefits mumble community mumble usually a cake.” So, in order to be better prepared for these situations in future, I have compiled a list of Great Reasons For Winter Swimming – please feel free to use any of these yourselves, and also feel free to let me know how many hundreds of converts you get as a result.

  1. You feel alive. I know, non-swimmers are going to say, “I also feel alive, I am alive right now and I feel it,” but they don’t understand exactly what this means. It’s all the ways the cold water takes you away from the dull comfort of normal life and reminds you of the gift of existing in that moment. It’s the tingling sensations from every nerve in your skin, the depth of breath, the heightened senses, and of course, the hooded figure in your peripheral vision standing on the shore writing the words “oblivion awaits” in the sand with a piece of driftwood.
  2. You become resilient, and not just against general things like stress or illness, but also specific things like falling down an old well. After five winters of swimming I can safely say I have never fallen down an old well – coincidence? – and I know that even if I did I would simply say, “Ah, well,” due to resilience, rather than run around panicking (about the well situation) like most people would do and like I did when I fell down that much newer well. 
  3. People will often talk about getting an ice-cream headache as they get into cold water, but remember that’s just another way of saying, “I have a headache and it is delicious,” and the good news is it doesn’t even melt because of water temperature and also because that’s not a thing that happens to headaches. 
  4. One word: carpsong.
  5. OK, fine, some more words (in relation to the above word, carpsong). Only in our cool winter waters can you hear the majestic yet mournful harmony of thousands of carp calling out to each other underneath the water, beckoning in the spring. Sure, hallucinations are part of hypothermia, but answer me this: if this wasn’t real, where do you think the name Carp Pool Karaoke came from?
  6. Finally, and for me, most importantly, you get to do something far away from our modern, wasteful consumerist system, you learn to reject materialism and appreciate the things money can’t buy.  Also, double Nectar points and a free t-shirt with every tenth swim.