In November I travelled to Latvia for Stage 1 of the Winter Swimming World Cup , the annual opener of a competition series that takes swimmers around the world. Thankfully there are no qualification stages so swimmers of all abilities can take part. The competition for the medal places, however, can be very tough as the event attract professional athletes as well as amateurs.

As soon as I had checked into my hotel in the provincial city of Jelgava, I headed down to the competition venue which had transformed a small stretch of river into an 25m outdoor pool.  By the waterside, there were already a few swimmers testing the water and getting a feel for the venue, it didn’t take long for me to join them and get a few laps in.  It was pitch black in the water as the electricity for the lights at the pool had not been connected yet, that did not deter the die-hards. 

1904 Olympic 50 yard dash final (photo courtesy of Missouri History Museum)

These events seem to capture the original and early ethos of the modern Olympics in their very early years when the swimming events were held in the sea and in rivers.  The 1900 Olympics in Paris included a 1km and 4km swim down the River Seine with a generous ‘swoosh’ from the flow. The 1904 Olympics cut the distances down but also switched them to yards.  Even in 1908 when it was decided that the swimming competition should not be held in open water, they simply moved to an outdoor pool.  The participants were all enthusiastic amateurs rather than elite professionals who have taken over the top level of the sport now

Flags of the nations taking part in stage 1 of the winter swimming world cup. (photo: Matthew Davenport)

Winter swimming events take place in the winter months of the Northern hemisphere but there is no minimum temperature to qualify the water as swimmable, unlike ‘Ice swimming events' which requires the water to be 5C or less. The water in Latvia on that Thursday night was wintery but not icy.

The next morning competition began in earnest and the infamous orders began to sound across the tannoy “Take off your clothes” and “Get in the water”.  Thankfully the water was not too chilly (8C) but cold enough to make me appreciate that my Selkie (recycled) swimsuit was fully lined – any warmth is welcome in winter.  I was able to watch a few of the early races and was pleased to see people of all different abilities take part and earn their spurs as a ‘world cup winter swimmer'

The start line of the 450m with Ellery, Matthew Davenport, Piotr Bianowski, Christof Wandratsch (photo courtesy of Jelgavas Roni swim club)

The 450m endurance swim is the only event at this competition where a brief medical check and a proven experience of ability in cold water is required.  At this distance I won bronze last year, this time I found myself alongside former English channel world record holder Christof Wandratsch , one of his proteges from the German ice swimming team, Mack Lars, a professional Polish swimmer Piotr Bianowski  and alongside Ellery McGowan , also a winter swimming world record holder.  It’s fair to say I did not win a medal this year, but I had the privilege of watching Ellery set a new world record for her age group.

Ellery McGowan at the end of the race having set her age group world record (photo : Matthew Davenport)

Across the whole competition the United Kingdom came 7th in the medal table and Jade Perry (UK) was awarded the trophy for top female swimmer at the event.  

Bit it’s not all about speed, and in my final event, the 4 x 25m relay, one of the teams entered wearing fuzzy polar bear hats that they did not want to get wet. They swam the whole relay in a slow, gentle, head up breaststroke, and each swimmer earned their world cup winter swimmer status too.

Henry Taylor with his brother/coach in the 1908 London Olympics (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

One of my swimming heroes from history is a man called Henry Taylor from Oldham, near Manchester. He used to train in Holliwood canal in his lunch breaks. In 1908 he won 3 Olympic gold medals for the UK.  It took another hundred years for another UK athlete to beat that record, even though Henry Taylor was an amateur whose day job was working in a cotton mill.  In #TeamSelkie we also all have our own day jobs and pursue outdoor swimming in our own different ways, wanting everyone to be able to join in the  #TeamSelkie journey.

The International Winter Swimming Association’s (IWSA) rules state that their main objective is “promoting a healthy lifestyle” which embraces the sense of fun and good nature of their events.  Their spoken motto is “the colder the water, the warmer the friendship” which is something I have found to be true wether taking an annual Boxing Day dip or post swim shivers in a semi-rural Scandinavian sauna.  Back home in England I find the colder the water, the warmer the layers I need. Thankfully Selkie have all the cosy winter gear I could ever need in their shop