‘Totally cold’ is not too cold for winter swimmers competing in a frozen Vermont lake

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NEWPORT, Vt. (AP) — Plunging into a frozen lake and swimming laps may not be everyone’s good time but for winter swimmers who return year after year to a northern Vermont lake near the Canadian border, there’s nothing better.

The 10th annual Memphremagog Winter Swimming Festival kicked off Friday with the 200-meter (218-yard) freestyle race in a narrow pool cut from the ice. But the festivities started Thursday and on Friday morning some of the 180 participants swam a lap wearing a decorated hat.

“It was amazing. It’s the highlight of my year,” said Andie Nelson, of Arlington, Virginia, after swimming 25 meters (27 yards) in the hat competition. “It makes me happy.”

She planned to compete in all events over the three days and said it’s more about the people and comradery than the icy water.

Ted Hirsch, 63, of Boston, and Ed Gabriels, 62, of Germantown, New York, have been competing against each other for about seven years This year, Gabriels beat Hirsh in the 200-meter freestyle.

A group of women from Canton, Ohio, called the Buckeye Bluetits range in age from 40 to about 80 years old and returned for their fourth year. They swim year-round at Meyers Lake at home but wouldn’t miss the chance to swim in Vermont in what organizers say is some of the coldest winter swimming in the world.

“It’s the vibe. We have so much fun here and we’re amongst friends,” Margaret Gadzic said.

Winter and ice swimming is defined as swimming in water at 41 Fahrenheit (5 Celsius) or below, according to organizers. The International Winter Swimming Association lists nine such events around the world this season on its website, with Memphremagog being the only one in the U.S. Other competitions happened in Sweden, Poland, Switzerland and Belgium with one coming up in March in Estonia.

“Our water temperature is 30.5 degrees (negative 0.8 Celsius). It’s microscopic slushy. We call it ‘totally cold’ and it is the coldest — some of the coldest water, coldest swim in the world,” said Phil White, the director of Kingdom Games, who added it’s the only competitive, 25-meter ice pool in all of the Americas.

Swimmers were escorted out onto the frozen lake in robes and stripped down into their suits just before plunging in. Once they finished, escorts handed them towels and robes before they were walked to a nearby warming building.

This year, swimmers came from as far away as Mexico and England as well as from California, Arizona, Texas, the Northeastern U.S. and British Columbia.

Nelson, of Virginia, was so excited she didn’t get much sleep Thursday night before the 200-meter swim. She said she inhaled some water and felt nauseous after eating lunch an hour earlier so she had to slow down her pace.

“It was still fun,” she said.

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