Cold water swimming draws one back home

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Brynna Kate Tucker makes a snow angel before a swim.  Photos courtesy of the Tuckers
Brynna Kate Tucker makes a snow angel before a swim. Photos courtesy of the Tuckers

copyright the Chronicle January 28, 2015

by David Dudley

NEWPORT — Though Brynna Kate Tucker was born and raised in Sutton, it didn’t occur to her that swimming in cold water might be the thing to do until she moved to Brooklyn, New York.

“In November of 2006, one week before my birthday, I joined the Coney Island Polar Bear Club,” Ms. Tucker said, via phone. “I’ve been swimming every week since.”

Her matter of fact delivery might raise some eyebrows, but there are numerous benefits to cold water swimming and bathing. She says that, among other things, it’s a great conversation starter.

“People never forget you when you say that you’re a cold water swimmer,” Ms. Tucker said. “Of course the first question I always get is, Isn’t that cold? The obvious answer is, Yes!”

Still, thousands of people like Ms. Tucker take to frigid waters when winter comes.

Though North America is only now coming to embrace cold water swimming, which is a tradition in other countries such as Russia and China, the inaugural United States Winter Swimming Championships will be held in Newport, from February 21 to 22.

Phil White, director of Kingdom Games, is organizing the event. Though he is also an outdoor swimmer, Mr. White didn’t get the idea until he saw the Newport Parks and Recreation Department working with their ice saw.

“I wondered how we could use that,” Mr. White said. “It occurred to me that we could hold a cold water swimming event, but I didn’t want to jump in without the right kind of help.”

Mr. White put out a message on Facebook. Before long a reply came: “Are you serious?”

“One swimmer had just returned from Russia, and wanted to see this event happen,” Mr. White said. “That’s how it all started.”

As of this writing there are 30 participants registered. They will come from all over the world: Japan, Latvia, Russia, Finland, Australia, and Chile.

Ms. Tucker is one of them. She signed up for the 25-meter breaststroke. Though she has braved the Atlantic Ocean on many occasions, she knows that Lake Memphremagog is a whole other world.

“I was born in the Northeast Kingdom, after all,” Ms. Tucker said. “It’s like a whole other weather system. And we’ve never had to cut through the ice at Coney Island. So it will be a whole new challenge.”

For Ms. Tucker, it’s all about endurance.

“Because I’ve been doing this for some time, I know more or less what my body can take,” Ms. Tucker said.   “Cold is cold. But even little differences in degrees make a difference when you’re doing this.”

Ms. Tucker said that her body may go numb after ten minutes in water that’s 36 degrees Fahrenheit. But it may go numb much faster if the water is, say, 31 degrees Fahrenheit.

Though Mr. White is spearheading the effort to bring competitive cold water swimming to the Northeast Kingdom, he confessed that he’s never braved the frigid waters of Lake Memphremagog.

“I’m excited about winter games,” Mr. White said. “And I’m excited to see Lake Memphremagog get around the world. This event will hopefully bring business to the area, and lend Newport a sense of vibrancy during the long winter season.”

Ms. Tucker said that she is not particularly fond of the winter, nor cold.

The International Ice Swimming Association requires that bodies of water be 41 degrees Fahrenheit, or colder. Ms. Tucker claims to have been in water that was at best 31 degrees Fahrenheit.

Many people seem to think that winter swimmers have some secret that protects them from the cold, Ms. Tucker said. They don’t.

“Winter is hard for me,” Ms. Tucker said. “But cold actually feels good. When we’re injured, we put ice on the affected area, right? It’s the shock of the cold that gets us.”

From left to right:  Meghan Tucker, David Tucker, and Brynna Kate Tucker, swimming off of Coney Island on Thanksgiving Day in 2008.
From left to right: Meghan Tucker, David Tucker, and Brynna Kate Tucker, swimming off of Coney Island on Thanksgiving Day in 2008.

Ms. Tucker used getting into the water for the first time as an example.

“You lose your breath,” Ms. Tucker said. “But once you get past that, once your body adjusts, it’s not so bad.   When you get out, it feels wonderful, invigorating. Especially if the sun is shining. You can feel the sun’s warmth on your skin. It’s amazing.”

Though she’s set to compete at Lake Memphremagog, Ms. Tucker said that cold water swimming has led to more connections than rivalries. Besides joining the Coney Island Polar Bear Club, she also joined the Coney Island Brighton Beach Open Water Swimmers of New York City.

“There’s a real sense of camaraderie between us,” Ms. Tucker said. “Though we come from all walks of life, we watch out for one another. I’ve met so many people I wouldn’t have met otherwise.”

Then there are the health benefits.

Though the dangers of cold water swimming are the stuff of common sense — cold water response may lead to hyperventilation, and thus drowning — the potential health benefits are less well-known.

John Durant, author of the Paleo Manifesto, was a member of the Coney Island Polar Bear Club. He claimed that cold water swimming stimulates thermoregulation, which improves blood-flow and boosts the immune system.

“I almost never get sick,” Ms. Tucker said. “And that’s saying a lot. I work at the Pratt Institute, a college in New York City. So I know I’m doing something right.”

Cold water swimmers also believe that winter swimming and bathing helps relieve pain for those with rheumatism and asthma.

For Ms. Tucker, cold water swimming also became a point of connection for her family. Since telling her Dad, David Tucker, of her love for cold water swimming, he has joined her on a number of swims.

“I didn’t know what my Dad would say when I told him that I was going to swim in dangerously cold water,” Ms. Tucker said. “But he joined my club for a swim the following Thanksgiving.”

“When she first told me I thought, This is crazy,” Mr. Tucker said. “Then I went down and joined her. We’ve spent three Thanksgiving holidays swimming together.”

Though winter swimmers achieve a certain high, Ms. Tucker said that she’s not necessarily an adrenaline junkie.

“This is the only extreme sport I do,” Ms. Tucker said. “It’s the only extreme sport where you can keep control. I won’t jump out of a plane. Once you leap, you can’t turn back. With this, I decide when to enter the water, and when to get out. I have complete control.”

contact David Dudley at [email protected]

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