With next month’s IWSA Winter Swimming World Championships in Lake Bled, Slovenia almost upon us, thoughts turn to my first trip to the World Champs in Tallinn in 2018.
It was early 2018 and we were enjoying some fairly Baltic conditions courtesy of the ‘Beast from the East’, all of which were being taken in typically stoic good humour by the regulars at Parliament Hill Lido; I was particularly thankful as it was proving excellent acclimatisation for my imminent trip to Estonia for the Winter Swimming World Champs.
I had fancied a minor adventure and a bit of a challenge when I signed up, and if I’m honest, was still blissfully ignorant of the event when I travelled alone to Tallinn in March. Only on arrival did it really occur to me that whilst the Lido had been cold, this was the actual Baltic, and we were geographically a hell of a lot closer to the Siberian source of the winter chill. Air temps here were around -20 centigrade, and there was a pretty liberal snow covering over everything, though mercifully little wind to add bite.
Having settled into my AirBnB, I went out to get my bearings and see the venue: a 25m pool carved out of foot deep harbour ice, surrounded by a temporary village of bleacher seating, food stalls, changing facilities and the inevitable saunas.
Registration was interesting, and as I was down to swim in the Endurance event, included a heart-warming lecture about how dangerous this endeavour would be. It was all made so much more intimidating as I seemed to be in a room filled entirely by robust men and women wearing various national team tracksuits (including those of the wonderfully named ‘Belarusian Federation of Hardening and Winter Swimming’). It’s fair to say that I felt well and truly out of my depth, so thank god for the very wonderful John Coningham-Rolls, who was on hand to set my mind at ease and offer to personally spot for my Endurance race. Next up was a visit to the doctors to get my blood pressure measured (understandably a bit high) and an ECG, which I was very glad to pass.
On the day of my first event, I found myself at the venue early, without a great deal to do but repeatedly arrange my kit, stretch and worry about the fact that the water was being reported as 0.2 degrees. Eventually I was called and so began the slow creep towards the edge of the pool, where I barely had time to enjoy the most unlikely of announcements ‘…and representing Great Britain…’, before the sudden (and wonderfully robotic) instruction came to ‘Take off your clothes’. It was at this point I quickly realised I was wearing far too much, and was still struggling with my socks when the demand to ‘Get in the water’ was issued a moment later. All my zen preparation gone in an instant, with no time to pause or think, I was in the water and immediately pushing off.
The race itself was a tumult of poor technique, snatched breath, mouthfuls of harbour water and frankly awful turns. But somewhere amidst the chaos I was loving it, and before long, John was bellowing down at me that it was my last lap and to push hard to the finish. 50 metres later I’d somehow touched in third place; by the smallest of margins, I had finally made it to a podium.
I don’t know if it was the disbelief in my finishing position, the effects of the cold water, or the adrenaline, but I was feeling rather elated and bumbled around a bit until I was spotted by a member of the ultra-inclusive Danish team, and dragged to various sauna until settling into a converted Audi for what might well have been the rest of the day. 
A day or two later and I was back for the 200m, which without the time to find my rhythm, was an even more frenetic splash around. I didn’t place and I didn’t care…there was a podium ceremony with my name on it, and a night out with the Danes to look forward to.
At the end of it all, I’d had a wonderful few days in a really interesting city I’d never been to before; I hadn’t embarrassed myself too much in the water, I’d roamed across just about all of Tallinn, at night and in day, on my own and in company. I returned a complete advocate of the event and was determined to compete again, though I looked forward to the benefit of a bit more experience behind me when I did.
And of course, as so often is the case with these things, it turned out that I hadn’t been the only clueless competitor to travel from Parliament Hill, which I only found out sometime later. Both of us had planned and travelled independently, swum, done well enough, and crucially, managed to enjoy the hospitality and support of other ‘national teams’. We both returned home wanting to recreate this inclusiveness and Corinthian spirit on our next trip. 
So this year we made it our mission to cajole as many others from the Lido as we could to sign up and to travel with us to Slovenia. Having had modest success in this endeavour, we are enormously excited (and a bit nervous) to be heading out to the magical Lake Bled as part of the newly formed Parliament Hill Ice Swimming Team (PHIST):
  • Warren Phelops
  • Nick Murch
  • Nichola Murch
  • Sandy Abrahams
  • Deya Ward
  • Alan Stickland

We hope to do well; we know we’ll have fun…and next time around we know our team will be bigger.

 …and of course, a big thank you to Selkie for helping to keep us seriously toasty on our adventures.