Updated: Feb 17, 2020
Very exciting to be able to attend and swim at the premier gathering of winter swimmers at Lake Bled, Slovenia. The king and queen of winter swimming were there, in their finest dry robes – the Germans Alisa Fatum and Christof Wandrasch. She smashed the kilometer race on day one, with a time of just over 13 minutes, and both won everything they entered. Apart from the sheer awe that this inspires – a Summertime Olympic time done at 7 degrees Celsius in Winter – I am left wondering why this isn’t yet a Winter Olympics event. This growth of this activity across the years should surely see the great winter swimmers becoming rewarded properly before long. The Finns were here in good form, moving around the place like they own it, which they kind of do. The Danes were a solid and positive pack; the Swiss, all from Geneva as far as I could tell, were striking in their red robes with white cross, carrying cow bells - you always knew where they were. The French had a cool retro thing going for them. The Estonians and Russians, of course were there, as was a menagerie of Germans - Berlin Seadogs, Rostock Seadogs, Heiligendam Seahorses, Leipzig Penguins - we had a very pleasant conversation in the mega-sauna with one of the Seahorses. I didn't mention the Berlin Brandenberg Bears. They had the best hats - a white polar bear - and were happy to share their hats and pose with me.
Jeremy and I went together, Neil regrettably had to stay back – next time, Neil. And we kept bumping into friends old and new. We stayed in accommodation arranged by Jaana, and were in the company of Serpentine Swimming Club people much of the time – as well as Jaana, there was Nicola, Anne, and Eliza, and in the girls log cabin, George and Matthew in the flat opposite, and the Luckhurst family in their rented house close to the event centre, the Olympic Rowing Centre on Lake Bled. John, who is on the Executive Board of the Organisation, was hearty, friendly and welcoming to all - a great positive presence. Nick and James distinguished themselves with coming third and second respectively in their distance events, and while not all could have prizes, they could certainly have cake, which was abundant and good. We met Mark, the best American at the event in every sense, and Gilly from the Lake District with great swimming agility, the best colour blocking and hair cut, and great sense of fun-friendliness.
Bled was a magical backdrop to the event – magical lake – tick; magical island with magical church – tick; magical castle on the top of a towering rock – tick; magical snow clad mountains – tick; and a magical moon in a deep blue sky on the last day – tick. Bled ticked all the magical boxes. Then there were the swimmers, individuals and groups, many dressed for the party with dry robes bedecked with badges, tags and labels, embroidery and sparkles, beanies in club colours, swim caps revealing club or swim identities. My swim identities were Dodo and Serpentine. A bit schizophrenic, but I talked with a young lady who lives in Cardiff and she described the three clubs in and around Cardiff she swam with, and the one near Bristol, who swim at Cleveden ocean pool. “I’m a bit of a swim-slut” she confessed. I sympathized; I guess I am a swim-slut too, but have never known the right term for it. Now I know. And there was much to learn at the Winter Swimming World Championships. Some of the learning was to do with Pauline Barker.
I wanted to meet her, but it wasn’t so easy. I met the first blond women speaking English and asked her if she was Pauline Barker. I got a bemused look. The second attempt was a bit better – this blond woman asked if I wanted to find her now, she could help. “No, not now” I said, as I was getting ready to get ready for my first race, and I was nervous. I really did want to find Pauline Barker, and I did. The third attempt “are you Pauline Barker?” met with success. She was in a hurry, but gracious and polite, she was swimming very soon. We spoke of the Polar Bear Challenge and the work it involved on her part – she is another little-sung hero of winter swimming. Taking the cue from Pauline, Jeremy and I went to the pool-side to watch the races, and there was no missing Pauline Barker there – she wasn’t so much as wearing the Union Flag of Great Britain, as embodying it, with swim-suit, swim-cap – happily the most visible person on the swim deck. Jeremy and I met many people we would like to swim with, and reflecting on the groups and individuals I swim with, I realised that I am happy to swim with almost anyone, and am very happy to be a swim-slut.