Jackie Risman is part of a growing swimming community in the Lake District. Whilst many people start their outdoor swimming careers in warm climates, Jackie’s first outdoor swims were in Siberia!
A Lotus Rises spoke to Jackie to find out more about her swimming journey from Siberia, to Argentina and back home to the Lake District and her growing group of swimmers.
Why did you start outdoor swimming?
After two years of teaching English in Siberia, I decided to go winter swimming. My Russian student always found a way to turn discussions to the traditions and health benefits of swimming in cold water. It was worth trying if I was ever to find out what all this talk was about. As my boss, and in his role as President of the Tyumen Winter Swimming and Hardening Association he grasped an opportunity to introduce his passion to both me, the extreme tourist, and his growing children. When I announced my intention to swim in the frozen lake beside his dacha, in the depths of yet another harsh Siberian winter, the children said “Ok. If you swim, we’ll swim!” He stood proud as we all shook hands in solid agreement.
Saturday morning arrived and my boss led our anxious group to the gym for a warm-up game of basketball. When our cheeks began to flush, he told us to quickly change into swimsuits while he organized our equipment. He was presented each of us with only a toweling dressing gown, fur-lined gloves, traditional Siberian felt varlinkee boots and a woolly hat. Laughing about our lack of winter clothing, we trudged outside into -15ºC and the icy path to the pool. Cold air crept into every space between skin and fabric, threatening to deep freeze our bodies until guided back to the sauna. Family and friends were applauding and yelling support from the dacha balcony, clutching hats and down jackets to them, as if we were making them feel colder. My brain screamed of danger, but my body wondered what all the fuss was about, because it really wasn’t as immediately bad as I presumed being semi-naked in wildest Siberia would be.
The children stood back from the lake as we reached the wooden walkway leading across the frozen shore to the shelter protecting the ice hole. Memories flew across my mind of torturous school hockey games in the middle of winter while fingers froze and sleet blinded us. “But THIS is Siberia,” I repeated, “this is what they do in Siberia, and of course you can do it too. You’re a tough Cumbrian lass.”
Without delay, my boss urged me to follow him inside the shelter. The children’s heads crowded into the doorway behind us, while I stared down at the 8m x 2m hole that had been carved through metre-thick ice into the frozen lake. A pump was driving air which bubbled through the black water to keep it from re-freezing, but the wooden steps descending into the steaming mix were shrouded in icicles and delicate frosting. The smell of rich Siberian earth, vegetation and metallic new ice lingered in the fog. Light flooded plastic-paneled windows while their corners were rounded with remnants of last night’s snowfall. This place hovered in a netherworld caught under the snow yet above the ice, and I was about to go swimming.
“Jackie, you must breathe out when you enter the water. Don’t forget to breathe.” My boss was calling me back from imagination. A moment of no thinking, of simply following his guidance, and I was trying to relax my breathing, outside in a Siberian winter, in a swimsuit and bobble hat.
My toes touched the water which had been a film of glassy ice only a few hours ago, and I knew it was going to hurt. Two more steps down and my knees were submerged. Standing on the wooden framework, almost at my ear, my boss shouted “Go, go Jackie go.” I pushed away from the warmth of the wood and fell into the world of winter swimming in Siberia. From that moment, I didn’t look back with an ounce of regret or doubt that my boss knew exactly what he was talking about, and everything he had said was true. With a dedicated ice training plan my circulation and immune system dramatically improved, my heart felt strong, an appetite for adventure grew, and ‘cold’ never crept back into our vocabulary.
Siberia – that’s amazing – what’s it like cutting the ice?!
Every week, we swam in the frozen lake at the dacha. The children would drop into the pool behind me like ducks. Our screams of fear became encouragement, and more friends, including Ruth from Northern Ireland, joined us for the first time, fed by our enthusiasm for ice water. By May, winter had faded, the lake was melting, and we were confident and capable of swimming outside even when the temperatures plummeted to -34ºC. We followed International Winter Swimming Association (IWSA) guidelines and rules of security which meant that no-one swam alone, or without a woolly hat, or without the sauna being prepared first, and we never said the c-word!! Of course, it was going to be c-c-cold. By avoiding the word, we found a game in the positive mindset needed to keep swimming week after week in water below +5ºC. Usually, the children pushed me to swim first, and often the air pump had not been turned on. I would launch out from the steps and have to crash my naked hands onto sheets of invisible ice threatening to slice arms and faces. Icicles and frost would sparkle like fairy dust as steam rose from water warmer than the outer air. Our damp varlinkee boots would freeze to the wooden walkway and prevent us from stepping straight into them and easily walking away from the pool. Part of the fun was being frozen to the spot, and then sprung free to slide along the walkway back to the bank, but nothing prepared us for the razor sharp slashes of water which had frozen to our wet skin, that were pulling fine hairs from arms and exposed legs.
Where else have you swum?
The following summer, my boss was invited to the Argentina Winter Swimming Festival, in the Andes above Mendoza, and to swim in front of the Perito Moreno Glacier in Patagonia. He invited me, and I was honoured to join him. This unique opportunity of swimming in the cold but open waters of an Argentinian winter, concluded all the preparation we had been doing in Siberia. With nothing more than a swimsuit, cap, goggles and a positive attitude, strong friendships were founded as swimmers from 20 different countries shared unique experiences with us. Back in Siberia, we looked forward to hosting and swimming with these special people in the 2nd Tyumen Winter Swimming Open Cup. Guests joined us in our pool at the dacha, from South Africa, USA, Chile, Argentina, England and all across Russia and Europe. For many, winter swimming in Siberia was an impossible dream, and the event cemented our international winter swimming family.
Next, I landed in Finland with Ruth, and participated in the national championships, just 100kms from the Arctic Circle. More than 700 swimmers of all ages and abilities from across Finland, with a mutual love of winter swimming hosted us. We loved every second of their fresh/sea water pool and the club on the river, which is attended daily by hundreds of swimmers just as keen as us to feel their endorphins racing. Soon, I was on my way back to Argentina, via Prague to join Czech swimming friends, who also shared a passion for swimming throughout the year, and I promised, one day, to return for their traditional Boxing Day swim under Charles Bridge.
After my second South American winter in Argentina, and assisting the organization of another International Winter Swimming Festival, life took a dramatic turn when aged only 45, I returned to Cumbria for a life-changing total hip replacement. Convinced that I wasn’t going to waste time by sitting around in pain, I visited Wigton Baths as often as possible for classes. I hoped to learn how to properly swim front crawl, right up until the week of surgery. Just as Siberia had taught me to enjoy the positivity of winter swimming, the pool taught me that movement without pressure on my damaged joints was keeping muscles flexible and my heart moving. Post-surgery, 6 weeks later, I was on my way back to the pool with Francine who, after 30 years of friendship, I’d just heard about her love of morning pool swims. It was a celebration to be in the water again and able to explore a new range of movement.
I walked with Leah from Lanthwaite Green car park at Crummock Water, just 8-weeks post-surgery. I’d underdressed my swimsuit and saw total shock when I told her as we locked the car. She held my clothes and sheltered from the sudden snow shower, laughing her head off when I waded into the lake at flat-stone beach, and had the shortest and first of many wild swims on home turf. Half disbelief, half amazement that I felt back in a pain-free world of adventure, which didn’t just connect me with open water. Having grown up in the Lake District, it had never occurred to me until then that I had a million opportunities for both cold and open water on the doorstep. My plan to swim in every swim-able lake was born now that I felt back on track with the buzz of Crummock-enduced endorphins racing through my body.
Where do you like swimming now and who with?
Three months after hip replacement, and feeling the need for an open/cold water companion, I put a message on Cumbria Open Water Swimmers Facebook page for like-minded winter swimmers. At first, the general response was very discouraging but, rising above the negativity, I stayed hopeful until Rosie replied and wanted to swim. We messaged, agreed to swim from the boat landings at Derwentwater, and then I asked “Where do you live?” As fate had it, we lived in Wigton, the same small Cumbrian town!
Fate and social media had nailed it. May Bank Holiday weekend, with fresh snow on the fells, we dipped into Derwentwater and it felt good. Our next adventure took us to Glencoyne Bay, Ullswater with artist, Nancy Farmer and her unforgettable chocolate brownies, and I knew what I needed to do…get decent swim shoes to deal with awkward rocks underfoot, and keep doing what we were doing. There was no pressure to push extreme limits, we belly-laughed in the middle of lakes, and we got out when we knew we could still recover with ease. The water temperature was much warmer than Siberia, closer to +7ºC, but the feeling was just as exhilarating. My journey had been tough with a lot of miles to get back home with a new outlook, and I felt stronger with every adventure – the Lake District had everything I could possibly need to pursue my love of wild swimming, while the people I told my adventures to smiled and became curious.
Eighteen months later, and every weekend it’s a different Lake District location, maybe a favourite lake spot or an unfamiliar tarn. This weekend I’ve been in both Crummock and Ullswater, wild swimming in the rain, uniting a group of swimmers that had never met before. Jean, who dared herself a year ago to join me and Rosie after we met at a local writers group; Margaret, who I met through mutual swim friends that we’d both found on Facebook, or was it Instagram?! Karen, accomplished swim achievements to her credit and visiting from Loch Lomond, but we first met in Argentina. And Francine, who finally joined in my challenge to swim all the Lakes, and has become my same-pace-same-courage-can-do-swim-pal; after all this time, who knew that her curiosity would generate a new dimension to our friendship.
How did that swim group grow?
Our wild swimming community is built on personal connections, and jam-packed with positive souls and strong spirits, regardless of ability, age, or experience, but united in their sense of adventure and love of being outside to see the Lake District from inside the view itself. The Swim Gang messages through the week to plan our next adventure, and has grown from tiny seeds of connection and mutual friendships, with wild swimming in the Lakes as our linchpin. We share transport and suggestions of recommended locations, Suzanna Swims offers creative routes, or Susan wishes for dawn training calls, on sunny evenings there are post-work de-stresses, or early Sunday morning nattering from the middle of a lake, bobbing along with the wind and buzzards swooping overhead. The rest of the world may be sleeping off what it thinks has passed. Meanwhile, we’re in the quiet of what is yet to happen, in the middle of the natural world where it’s all still ticking along nicely, and the rubbish stuff is too far back on the shore to reach. The serious bit is that we are all aware we are not out there alone: tow floats are a must, there’s no prizes for staying in too long, and the swim isn’t over until everyone’s recovery is complete. After all, this is extreme adventure tourism, although it may not be Siberia, but the stakes are equally high. And there is always the sharing of photos and experiences, across our social media circles which are spread around the world, or tea and cake for when we’ve dried off!
What does swimming mean to you?
Recently, I enrolled for an online copywriting course. The first exercise said – Sell yourself in a letter and sign it with your defining life role. I gave it a lot of thought: writer, teacher, domestic engineer…no, I thought…wild swimmer. I’m a wild swimmer and I’m wild about swimming wild. I love the rituals; the adrenalin; the mastering of irrational fears; the state of having irrational fears; our community; their diversity; how we never permit the c-word; swimming in all weathers, in all seasons; the strength that each of us displays that no individual thought they held alone, although wild swimming is not a team sport. Swimming has become the force of nature that wakes me early at the weekend, keeps me warm in the winter, and throws me into the beautiful Lake District landscape in search of fresh adventures. Every time, the experience is different, neither better nor worse – just wildly unique.
As you know A Lotus Rises is working in collaboration with the International Institute for Swim Cake studies, to answer the fundamental question of open water swimming: What is the best cake for optimum swim performance. Please can you tell us, what is your favourite swim cake and why?
And sometimes, Lottie will bake a cake. OMG can she bake a cake. Macademia and White Chocolate Brownies. End of!
What is your favourite piece of swim kit and why?
Finally, shoes. Get some, they will change your swim life. Take away the pain of starting and finishing your wild swim, knowing your feet won’t hurt and I may not be Halle Berry wading out of Ullswater, but I’ve never stubbed a toe when I’m wearing Sports Direct’s Hot Tuna swim shoes. With flexible but hardwearing soles, neoprene slip-ons, they are secure, lightweight, still let me feel the water temperature, are machine washable, and incredible value for money. Plus, a lightweight but hooded toweling poncho that rolls up small for my backpack to save modesty and from flashing my cold bits in moments of vulnerability.
Swim safe. Swim wild.
You can follow Jackie’s adventures and connect with her via Instagram
A Lotus Rises is the swimming blog for women who love open water, from your first 25m to the Channel. And we’re on a mission to increase visibility, access and participation of women in swimming and we’d love you to be a part of it. Many more inspirational stories, advice and adventures can be found on our Blog, and Facebook page and Instagram, – please don’t hesitate to get in touch via Twitter or firstname.lastname@example.org. We want to share your stories, so we can support you and inspire others!