One Writer Makes the Case for Cold-Water Swimming This Winter

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Plunging into the ocean off of the coast of Maine in December, you don’t feel wetness, only the stunning electricity of liquid burning cold. At dawn the sea is a slick of pink in the small cove near our house in Portland. I strip down to my swimsuit quickly in the 24-degree semi-dark, pulling on neoprene booties, a fur hat and mittens, leaving all my shed layers neatly on a blanket, so that once I’m back on land, I can dry off and get covered as soon as possible.

And the clock is ticking. Walking into the sea, the cold raps my bones like someone cracking an old radiator with the side of a wrench. Water at 45 degrees is too cold somehow to be shocking—too cold to create a reaction, except one of extreme focus. Cold fire ignites the soft hollow behind the knees. It slides up the thighs, numbing as it climbs, until the dark water rings the pubic bone with the ecstatic intensity of a mountain bell. I drop lower, submerging my shoulders with a nonchalance that surprises me daily, holding just out of reach of the small rippling waves. One sharp exhale. Another. A third. I feel the blood rushing away from my brain towards my core. The seconds slide by on my stopwatch. One last sharp exhale. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, an eerie calm settles in, swelling and filling each of my cells. My muscles unclench and I take in the day’s first sun, just hitting the Eastern horizon now as pins and needles spread across my skin. 1 minute and 45 seconds go to 2 minutes. Then a scramble to the shore where, skin numbed to the towel, I focus on getting dressed before my clumsy fingers stop working.

As cold therapy guru-turned-Goop celebrity Wim Hof has long proselytized, the benefits of submitting the body to extreme cold are many—from boosted immunity to lessening anxiety. A variety of scientific research backs him up: participants in cold immersion studies have reported better health, heightened alertness and a brighter mood after submitting to routine frigid water exposure. These are the promises that first pulled me into the ocean last spring after the COVID shutdown, but before the snow had gone. Then, in the early summer, I went because I was happy to see Kerry, the one other friend who was crazy and curious enough to join me. I do tend towards the extreme, whether it’s committing to Taryn Toomey’s The Class remotely 6 days a week, or, in days gone by, spending over a month in silent meditation at an Indian ashram. But I hate the cold. I’m always the one who needs a second sweater, a thicker pair of socks. So, I could lie and say that the promise of good health is what brings me into the Atlantic in December, but that’s not it.

Lately, for every person who tells me I’m crazy to dip in the winter sea, there’s another who admits to being just as hooked. “Cake never tastes better than after going into the winter ocean,” says Molly Dwyer Blake, a friend and Maine-based artist who inspired my first dips with her own. “I love to go nude,” says Kirsten Rickert, another dear friend up the coast who favors an especially icy stream, documenting her adventures as @magnesium_blue to her more than 100,000 Instagram followers. “The cold ocean makes me feel alive,” Rickert adds. The Pacific also has its own pack of mermaids, and then there’s Sweden’s ice queen @jonnajinton, who brings a sensual Viking vibe to her dramatic plunges (she uses an ice saw to cut her own swimming holes). It’s all a testament to the surge in popularity of open water swimming, a full-body, low-impact workout that burns up to 500 calories an hour. But intense athleticism and a literal immersion in nature’s beauty are not the whole of what draws those like competitive swimmer Gertrude Ederle, the Olympian who first attempted to swim the English Channel, and subject of an upcoming Disney biopic, into the icy deep.

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