On average it takes a professional swimmer about 20 seconds to swim the 25-metre lane surrounded by ice in central Skellefteå. We know this because professional winter swimming, in temperatures just above zero, has been organised here since 2012.
Participants compete in breaststroke and freestyle swimming as well as a more relaxed ‘hat and cap race’.
“A naked body loses 50 percent of its heat through the head. That’s why it’s important to keep your hat on when winter bathing”, says Jarkko Enqvist, winter bathing enthusiast and manager for marketing and events with the association Mörkrets och Kylans Glada Vänner (lit. The Happy Friends of the Cold and Dark) which is behind the event.
In 2016 there were more than 200 participants and the year after, 400.
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The Scandinavian Winter Swimming Championship
February 16th, 2019, the Scandinavian Winter Swimming Cup is organised in Skellefteå. The Happy Friends of the Dark and Cold also offer courses in winter bathing.
“We have experienced a steady growth in the number of participants since we started”, reports Jarkko, recalling an episode from the first year of the championship. “With only two weeks to go, we had just one participant signed up. We actually thought about cancelling the whole thing, but then, a man from Värmland called. He had just booked his trip and wanted to double-check how many participants there were going to be. Our response was ‘You are not alone’ and that became the push that the organisers needed. We made an effort and when the day finally came we had 32 registered participants, 56 individual races and participants from five different countries. On that day the temperature was more than 30 degrees below zero and the event was in many ways a success. Today, the Winter Swim in Skellefteå is part of the Scandinavian Championship as well as being one of five competitions in the world International Winter Swimming Association, IWSA, World Cup.”
Clear health benefits
“We wanted to create a winter event that would spur interest in Skellefteå whilst also paying tribute to the cold and dark of the North”, explains Jarkko. “Winter has so much to offer us, not least at its darkest and coldest.” Winter bathing also has proven health benefits. Studies have shown that winter bathers have lower blood pressure, are more resistant to cold and cope better with stress – not to mention the endorphins that go absolutely wild after a winter dip.
In 2009 the association Mörkrets och Kylans Glada Vänner was established.
“At first we thought about calling ourselves Mörkrets Vänner (lit. The Friends of Darkness) but that was seen as slightly too melancholy. Then we tried The Friends of the Cold and Dark but that also had quite a heavy-hearted feel to it. So, we simply added ‘happy’, becoming The Happy Friends of the Cold and Dark“, Jarkko says with a smile.
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Finding joy in the cold and dark is what it’s all about. Because there is something extraordinary about the winters far up north when temperatures fall to 30 degrees below zero and there are just a few hours of sunlight each day – if the weather is good.
“We call this period the Melancholiad. It begins as we light the first tea light and ends when the last one has burnt down. We think that we need the cold and the dark, not least because it allows us to lay back and relax. The Melancholiad is about recreation and about a reaction. About reflecting on what has been and gathering strength in preparation for the light and intense summer half of the year. The cold and the dark play an important part in doing just that.”
Not only competition
“We have a three-day programme”, explains Jarkko. “The first day is the opening day with exciting seminars and talks on the subject of cold and dark. We will also have winter yoga in the park. The winter swimming competition will be held on the Saturday and the day after there will be an array of events. We aren’t actually very competitive people”, Jarkko concludes.
Want to learn more about the Winter Swim in Skellefteå or participate yourself? Go to vintersim.se.
“To us, winter, cold and dark is about experiences. That’s why we chose to complement the event with the Day of the Frost in 2015. It’s ‘back to basics’. A simple, accessible event where people meet and hang out; go for a winter swim, go ice fishing or play a game of kids’ curling. You know, in many ways, the cold and dark brings us together, we who have chosen to live up here – a stone’s throw from the Arctic Circle, are faced with darkness and cold for a large part of our lives.”