When extreme swimmer Christof Wandratsch became the first person to cross lake Boden and broke the world record across the English channel, he found himself looking for new challenges. He found winter swimming and the rest, as they say, is history.

German Christof Wandratsch, born in 1966, is an extreme swimmer and international long-distance star. Amongst other things, he was the first to cross Lake Boden, Germany’s largest lake. Swimming the 64 kilometres took him 20 hours. In 2007 he crossed the English Channel faster than anyone else at just over seven hours, the same year he also broke the Gibraltar Strait world record and in 2016 he broke his own record for 1000 m winter swimming. Well, you get the picture. He has swum all over the world, more than anything else he likes long, and in recent years also cold, swims.

Winter swimming – a true boost

First, let’s have a look at winter swimming and cold bathing. It takes on average 20 seconds to swim 25 metres in an opening in the ice in central Skellefteå. Winter swimming is supposed to be good for your general health and a true boost to your confidence. We know this because competitive winter swimming events, in water temperatures just above freezing, have been held here since 2012. The organisers, Dark and Cold have caught the eyes of the world and established winter swimming in Skellefteå as a natural part of winter in Swedish Lapland. “We had an idea to do something to celebrate winter”, says Jarkko Enquist, one of the people behind the events. “Something spectacular that attracted attention to our place on this earth.” And that’s what happened. Rooted in unconditional love for the cold and dark.

Shinto priests and regular northerners

There is also research to support the idea that an occasional winter swim is good for the body. British athletes such as tennis player Andy Murray, heptathlete Jessica Ennis-Hill, runners Paula Radcliff and Mo Farah all go for an ice bath after tough events to recover more quickly. Ice bathing seems to have an anti-inflammatory effect. Australia’s cricket captain said: “We used to put the beer on ice, now we do it with the athletes.” However, research has also shown that if you are trying to build more muscle, the anti-inflammatory effects of the ice bath may be counterproductive. Its benefits have been known to Shinto priests and regular northerners for hundreds of years though. A hot sauna and then out into the snow.

A love for winter swimming

Christof Wandratsch’s reason for being here right now is, of course, winter swimming and the world cup event held in Skellefteå. “After crossing Lake Boden in 2013 I was looking for a new challenge. I quickly fell in love with winter swimming and the following year I participated in a championship for the first time.” That was the World Championship in Rovaniemi, Finland. Christof competed in the 450-metre race and, of course, he won. He has competed many times in Skellefteå. Last time around he competed in all distances. Six of them. “The competitions in Skellefteå are always good”, he says, explaining that everything went well Tt time too. Even though he sports a humble attitude Christof clearly finds great joy in competing – and not least in winning. “Yes, I won all six events”, he says with a wide grin.

A screeching halt

According to Christof, winter swimming is very different from traditional swimming competitions. “If you start out too hard, it’s like your body comes to a screeching halt and it becomes impossible to recover. In regular swimming, you can just slow down a bit and the body will eventually have more energy but in cold, that is not possible.”
Christof also explains that your muscles become stiffer and you use up a lot more energy when winter swimming. “I tend to say you use about as much energy swimming in near-freezing water for 10 minutes as you do swimming in more normal water temperatures for two hours.”

A different kind of winter

Christof travels and competes together with his daughter Stella Krutenat and German long-distance swimmer Birgit Becher.

In addition to participating in this championship, they are taking the opportunity to experience real winter. Christof says they have been dog sledding and snowmobiling. “It was so quiet, on the dog sled and the sky was clear and starry. I was so happy. Almost as happy as the dogs”, he says with a laugh and explains that they quickly became friends, he and the dogs. “Maybe because we all like pushing ourselves to the max”, he laughs, “not least, in winter.”

Learn more

The Scandinavian Winter Swimming Championship is taking place in the middle of February, in Skellefteå, Swedish Lapland. Go to darkandcold.com, to learn more about the competition.

Preparing for winter

Christof shares his preparation tips for a season of winter swimming. “Start in the autumn, short dips at first. Then go for longer and longer swims as the temperature drops further. Other than that, you don’t need a lot. It is of course very exerting, physically, but a lot of it is in your head. Swimwear, swimming goggles and a swimming cap is about all you need. Maybe a bathrobe too.

“An alternative to a proper winter swim is, of course, a snow dive straight off your snowmobile, down into the soft, freshly fallen snow”, Christof says with a smile. “The climate in which you find winter swimmers may be cold and harsh, but it is my experience that winter swimmers tend to be remarkably warm-hearted people.”

Also read
  • Winter swimming

    February means time for the Scandinavian Winter Swimming Championship in Skellefteå. The championship is also part of the Winter Swimming World Cup as well as an appreciated festival for the entire city – all founded on a declaration of love for the cold and dark.

    Ted Logart
  • Breaking the ice

    To go on a boat trip and take a swim while you’re at it is a pretty common activity around the world, in Swedish Lapland as well. But in Piteå, just a hundred kilometres south of the polar circle, the considerably less common twist is that the boat trip happens in minus 20 degrees Celsius with an icebreaker that weighs in at 400 metric tons.

    Anders Westergren
  • Ice Ultra

    Ice Ultra is a trial of strength for the hardy. 230 kilometres on foot in February, through one of Europe's perhaps most mythical mountain landscapes.

    Iréne Lundström