Translated by Kira Josefsson
There’s nothing new about winter swimming, but it hasn’t been this popular in a long while. On frozen docks, the crowds only keep swelling, in wool socks and with hot drinks at the ready. The phenomenon has entered a new phase, becoming something of a mass movement. As we bike in the morning around Stockholm’s Årsta Bay in gray November, dark December, and, at last, brighter January, there they are: swimmers bobbing like buoys in the water. Once out of the water, they linger on the docks, coffee thermoses in hand, as if it were high summer.
Ice swimming is one of the unlikeliest activities to become a craze during the pandemic. It’s everywhere in northern waters—people are sharing their photos of it on social media, they’re writing about it, they’re talking about it. I’m among them, as is photographer Sara MacKey. We’re both avid ice swimmers. I think of it as a sort of artificial sunrise in a time when you can’t rely on the real sun. When the world is hostile and circumscribed and you haven’t had the chance to do your dishes and you’re not allowed to have fun with your friends and you have to wear a face mask because the virus is a threat to those you love and work is crazy—that’s when you need it the most.
The act of lowering yourself into ice-cold water resets the brain, turns off some of the parts that traffi c in wallowing and darkness. I’m not alone in sensing this. Some say the change in mood has to do with brown fat, blood circulation and the hormone oxytocin. Whatever the cause, the swimmers bobbing between ice sheets could summarize it simply: We do this because it makes us feel better.
TANTO DOCKS, NOVEMBER
The Prada Bathers, all students at the Stockholm School of Architecture, meet here every morning, wearing red hats embroidered with an expensive-looking logo. Their members areNora Yous, Alma Segerholm, Anton Valek and Linnea Wetterström Engman. Segerholm designed the logos.
“I was a little lonely when I started school here in the fall,” says Valek, “and then I met Nora.” Yous had a goal of swimming for 100 days in a row and asked Valek if he wanted to do it with her. He didn’t hesitate: “Back home, I’d been in the habit of swimming in the Ume River until it froze and the ice couldn’t be broken, so I immediately said yes.”
“It’s become like our morning meeting now—otherwise, we never see each other. Everyone is just stuck in their own apartments. I needed something to break the monotony, to get me out of bed and into work mode,” Segerholm says.
“It’s anxiety-reducing, too,” Wetterström Engman reports. “Therapeutic. It rinses off the stress.” Valek agrees. “I’ve suffered from panic attacks, and I think these swims remind me of that feeling. Getting out of the water is like getting through to the other side of panic, and it creates a feeling of calm.”
On this day, the swimmers have brought coffee and saffron buns, and they sit down for a fika—a coffee break—before takingthe plunge. The wind blows cold and wet, westerly.
“It brings you closer to nature,” Valek says. “In the dark season, you suddenly become part of it, you’re in it every day. You see all the changes.” He stands up and leaps from the dock; the others make their way in more gingerly, swimming around, each in a fairly large circle. The water is 41 degrees Fahrenheit. Their bodies are used to it by now.
“It’s like playtime, this kind of weird and wonderful situation,” Valek says. “Everyone you meet on the dock is happy.”
After their swim, they stand on floor coverings they brought, huddling close together, shivering, pulling on bulky clothes and down jackets. They take in a last sip of coffee, then head home. The next time they see each other will be on Zoom and in group chats, but their time together will linger in cold toes. Ice swimming dates back centuries. When the Vikings embarked on their earliest journeys, they were not known for their cleanliness. But with time, they became associated with beauty and health, thanks to saunas and baths. The Vikings adopted the rituals they discovered while invading Russia. They brought the practices home, combining a good sweat with washing off in the snow or in a lake on Saturdays. The Swedish word for Saturday, Lördag, takes its name from this custom. Ulrica Nordström explores this history in her illuminating book, Nordic Baths.
The 18th century marked the birth of spa towns, and in the 19th century, cold bath houses proliferated along Nordic coasts. In 1814, the Swedish Medical Association prescribed “cold, salty baths” for patients, and it was partly thanks to Dr. Carl Peter Curman that the link between cold-water swimming, fresh air, healthy food and gymnastics was established; swimming became part of a healthy lifestyle. This health craze reached a peak in the 1960s and ’70s as raw carrots, herbal tea, fasting and health food became fashionable. But in the 1980s, cold-water swimming became less popular. Suffering was out; consumption, vacations to Crete and lounging in the pool were in.
Now the pendulum is swinging in the opposite direction again, and once more Swedes are turning to the raw, the bare, the natural.
Cold-water swimming was winning converts before the pandemic. Swimmers have long taken to the frigid waters of the English Channel. Skellefteå’s winter swimming competition has been attracting increasingly large crowds for 10 years, and Varberg’s cold bath house has hosted a steady stream of visitors for generations. And every New Year’s Day, cities around the world host polar bear plunges in which thousands of people dive into bone-chilling oceans and lakes. The pandemic, with the constraints that have come with it, has only created more cold-water enthusiasts. With cities no longer offering their usual distractions, swimming has suddenly become a draw.
Wim Hof is among those who have stoked the growing interest in ice swimming. A guru of sorts for new swimmers, he’s a hit on YouTube with millions of viewers. Known as the Iceman, Hof is a Dutchman who took solace in nature and cold after his wife and the mother of their four children killed herself. He has nearly climbed Mount Everest in shorts, he swam 216 feet under the ice and submerged himself in a hole cut from the ice for 1 hour, 52 minutes and 42 seconds. He says he’s able to control his body temperature using his mind, and he makes a living teaching classes that combine breathing techniques and frigid water.
TANTO BEACH DOCK, DECEMBER
Christian Haag calmly steps into the water, which is 39 degrees Fahrenheit. To keep from getting too cold, he usually follows the well-established concept of staying in for the number of minutes that match the water temperature in Celsius—four on this day. He links his legs with the ladder and puts his hands on his thighs, preferring not to move in the water. And there he lies, focusing on his breathing. In the dawn light, his head is visible from the path along the beach. People seem used to the sight.
Haag has a small wool rug that he stands on while drying off—slightly more advanced than the Prada Bathers’ plastic mats.
“A lot of it has to do with the breathing,” he says. “I’ve learned what a powerful tool it is in breathing classes. It’s possible to ‘gas up’ your body with an excess of oxygen while you empty it of carbon monoxide, and that can create a highly spiritual experience. For me, it all started with Wim Hof.”
Haag suffered from depression on and off for several years, and nothing seemed to help. When he came across Hof ’s teachings, he was intrigued. “I started out by taking cold showers at home. Then I filled the tub and put ice cubes in it. It was a good start. A month later, I was free of symptoms.”
Haag swam in the lake for the first time in 2019, and he’s kept at it ever since, going every day before work. He shares his experiences on Instagram, which also motivates him. “It’s a kind of mindfulness,” he says. “Naming and accepting feelings. Alright, now I’m shaking, now I’m going numb, now it’s raining, that’s the wind, there’s the sun. To experience without fighting it.”
Though ice bathing is a harmless activity, it still manages to annoy some people. Perhaps it has something to do with how perfect the holes in the ice look on social media. And as popular as ice swimming has become, many still don’t take part in it. Moomintroll, Tove Jansson’s beloved cartoon character, is among them. In Moominland Midwinter, Moomintroll wakes up in the middle of his hibernation and finds the Hemulen dipping himself between ice sheets in a river while a couple of chilled Creeps look on, terrified. Next, the Hemulen turns to gymnastics on the shore.
“Isn’t the cold lovely?” the Hemulen asks. “I’m never in as good a shape as in winter. Won’t you have a dip before breakfast?”
Moomintroll is troubled by his dislike of the Hemulen. He turns to him and asks, with all the kindness of a bad conscience: “It must be wonderful to like cold water.”
“I love it,” the Hemulen says, beaming. “It puts a stop to all unnecessary thoughts and fancies. Believe me: there’s nothing more dangerous in life than to become an indoor sitter.”
The swimmers of the 21st century have been derided as privileged members of the middle class who are trying to get close to the natural world that their own habit of consumption is killing. And the practice of seeking pleasure and purity through mortification of the flesh has always been associated with the wealthy. Perhaps comfort and safety are preconditions for the choice of subjecting yourself to pain. One might ask why these outdoor dips are suddenly known as “wild swimming”—even in Sweden. A dip is a dip, isn’t it? And, of course, there’s the grating jauntiness of it all. A longtime winter swimmer once told me that these cold dips are known as the lazy man’s marathon. It sets off so many things in the body, triggers reward systems and makes you pleasantly exhausted—no real effort needed!
FREDHÄLL’S SWIMMING CLUB, JANUARY
Maj Hård, 84, comes here three times a week. She’s been a member for 25 years, but she’s been swimming more with the passage of time.
“It’s turned into a habit,” she says. “These days, people talk a lot about energy and stuff like that, but to me…the main thing is that it feels good.” As a girl, Hård would swim in the countryside of rural Sweden. Her father was a lumberjack, and there was a sauna next to the workers’ cabins. “I guess I’ve become a little sauna and swimming crazy,” she says. “I’ve swum at Löyly in Helsinki, in Japan and in Turkey. If the snow is soft, I like to make snow angels instead of getting in the water. It’s funny that everyone is swimming now all of a sudden—poof, just like that! I guess it’s some kind of health project to them. The young people who swim here do yoga too.”
Hård says swimming allows her to start the day in beautiful surroundings. “And I feel good afterwards,” she adds. “During the pandemic, I can’t go to art museums or live-drawing classes, but I can still swim. I’m glad for that.”
When I’m sitting in 39-degree water, my blood races through my body, as if panicking. I take control of my breath, calming it down. My body turns off hands and feet as the blood goes to my heart and brain. When I get out, after just one or two minutes, I feel like my vision is sharper, my hearing is better. I can feel my lungs pull oxygen from the air; I can feel my heart pumping blood into the body. I’m glad for it, too.
Sara Mac Key is a documentary photographer based in Stockholm, Sweden. She was educated at the Nordic School of Photojournalism. She has exhibited in Sweden and abroad and has been published in the major newspapers and magazines in Sweden.
Josefin Olevik writes on culture, literature and outdoor life. She is the author of The Liberated Family and is an editor at the Swedish magazine Vi.