The temperature hovered around zero degrees Fahrenheit. I stood on thick lake ice facing a hole the length of my body that had been cut to reveal the frigid water of Cedar Lake in Minneapolis. It was February in Minnesota and the water was just above freezing.
I plugged my nose, jumped forward and was embraced by a shocking cold. Welcome to ice swimming, a crazy sport I was introduced to by a fun-loving Belarusian this year.
Earlier this winter, I met Sveta Kovalchuck through friends in Minneapolis. A few weeks later, while driving together to the Actif Epica bike race in Canada, she introduced me to ice swimming, a tradition she brought to Minneapolis from her home in Belarus.
“It all started many years ago. I grew up in a small town in Belarus. We had small lake at my house. Once I saw my mother in the early morning in November swimming in the lake and I decided to try too — but did not tell my mom,” Kovalchuck said.
She moved to the United States in 2011 and wanted to keep this tradition. A Russian friend gave her a tool for cracking ice and some fishermen showed her how to cut the ice hole. “For three winters now I regularly swim in the hole two to four times a month,” she said.
This winter Kovalchuck invited friends to join her via Facebook to ice swimming events she called “Night Water Butterfly,” which were held once a month. She even bought a portable sauna to provide a place to warm up for the 30 or so people she introduced to ice swimming.
“I am very pleased that some of my Belorusian culture has found its place in this country. We meet, we make a fire, swim, communicate, and also fry hot dogs,” Kovalchuck said.
I gave it a try at the last meet-up of the season. When it was my turn to jump, I plugged my nose, counted down from three, and hopped in.
The cold was shocking and I hardly remember my head going under. Afterwards, I warmed up by the fire feeling fresh and energized from the dip.
Kovalchuck raves that ice swimming is essential to good health, improving mood, and energizing participants.
Now that I’ve tried it, I can see how some people find it refreshing. I’m not sure that I’ll become a regular at the frozen swimming hole, but I might just keep my own tradition of jumping in one time each winter.
—Amy Oberbroeckling is assistant editor at GearJunkie.com