SWIMMINGPOD – PAULINE BARKER AND THE POLAR BEAR (AND PENGUIN) CHALLENGE

It is late August, a time of year when summer is coming close to ending, and when I start to look forward to winter again. I used to dread this transition, this steady slide into darkness and towards the cold, but no longer. What changed it for me was swimming through winter, when longer swimming is displaced by shorter colder swimming. When the big dry robe comes out again, along with the grey-and-black big bobble hat, when it becomes cool to look silly standing by the side of a lake or a river, shivering with a hot water bottle in one hand and a hot drink in the other. This is what the Polar Bear Challenge, the invention of Pauline Barker, celebrates – getting people into winter swimming or dipping, at any level. It is a privilege to have this podcast conversation with her, on Swimmingpod.


The Polar Bear Challenge is coming into its fifth year, with new challenges of all kinds. This time last year has it wasn’t clear how it would run, as COVID-19 appeared in decline in the UK, but with a surge anticipated in the Fall. Well, surge it did. In the UK, the second lockdown was announced on the day before the Challenge 2020-21 was due to start, and for most participants the bigger challenge proved to be how to keep swimming outdoors through winter in this national lockdown and the one that followed. The Polar Bear Challenge was modified to accommodate the new circumstances, with categories added, so that the will to swim, to be immersed in cold water regardless of what the physical world would allow, could still be rewarded. Just locally, in and around Oxford, I know a number of people for whom the Polar Bear Challenge was their way of staying committed to cold water, myself included. Swimming in-sub seven degree water was both crazy and also the sanest thing anyone could be doing across the past winter. The Polar Bear Challenge was helping people stay healthy and sane through a pretty insane period.


The rules for January were ‘swim as usual, if you can do so COVID-19-safely, but if you can’t, you can choose a ‘Chilly Challenge’. Such as ‘If you’ve got an outside pool you can swim in then 5 minutes of swimming counts as 250 metres and 4 minutes counts as 200 metres’ Or an ‘Ice Bucket Challenge - one bucket of ice and water will do’. And at an extreme - ‘Hosepipes, cold baths and cold showers count - must be at least one minute of soaking. If you’ve got an outside pool, barrel, bucket, trough, or bin that you can’t swim in but you can immerse in then this falls into this category’. As with Darwinian natural selection, adaptation was the key to survival of both Polar Bears and Penguins. Pauline Barker stayed open to including other challenges that might be equally challenging. We got through the winter all somewhat wiser at least, and most people completed their Challenge, either at the level they signed up for, or a level below. Now there are the coming year’s Polar Bear and Penguin Challenges to look forward to.


In this podcast, I talk with Pauline Barker about the origins of the Polar Bear Challenge idea, and how it has expanded. She describes how some people got through the COVID-19 winter through swimming, dipping or equivalent challenges. Most importantly, she talks about what’s in store for the coming winter. Winter swimming has probably never been so popular in the UK as it is now – come and listen to what Pauline Barker, one of the most experienced people in this field anywhere, has to say.


Listen to the podcast here




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