Acts of God and War

Poland Winter Swimming Championships

Lake Charzykowskie, 6 - 8 December 2013

There are occasions in life that as a consequence of certain events make life’s resulting tenure a bonus – each and every moment. This was true of the Polish Winter Swimming Championships held from Saturday 7th – Sunday 8th December on Lake Charzykowskie near the town of Chojnice, approximately 150km plus from Gdansk. My original title for this piece was going to be “..Where indeed does one start?…” but I decided to change it to “Acts of God and War.” I was part of a twenty five strong contingent from the South London Swimming Club (SLSC) that reside at Tooting Bec Lido and all was well prior to our departure as the pre-travel arrangements were organised with super-efficiency. However in spite of such efforts, they did not extend to matters often termed as “acts of God and war” as quoted by insurers in their policies as an attempt to absolve themselves of any responsibility should their help be required. When I arrived back at home at 3am on Monday 9th December from Stanstead Airport after dropping off people in Islington and Balham, before sleep overtook me, I then began my soul searching as to how I was going to be able to piece together what I had experienced in the briefest of periods that felt like weeks.

Most getaway weekends allow for lost luggage, a spilt coffee on a café table or even bad weather. The reassuring point is that I remember absolutely none of these happening to any of the group at any time during our slep in Polski. The reason for my lack of any recollection of such events was that they were all happening simultaneously, and they were nestled gently in the arms of a vast maelstrom blizzard that covered Gdansk and our eventual landing at Poznan some 300km away. There is a saying often used in times of war that simply says “there are not many atheists in fox holes” which succinctly summarises our plane landing in Poznan. Having been reliably informed by the captain that the Poznan divert was necessary due to the bad weather (cue monstrous understatement), to have survived the landing (as the plane yawed and pitched its way to the runway) unscathed simply set the scene that made whatever lay ahead of us as a walk in the park! As we were so far away from our original landing point at Gdansk, the subsequent train journey was positively life-affirming at six hours long and not a slog that had to be endured. What’s more the swimming in 1C water in an ambient air temperature of –5C seemed equally delightful and the pleasure would be all ours…..

The event, hospitality and “triumph over adversity spirit” made for a superb weekend. What transpired was an unsuspected snow blizzard in the Gdansk region that caught everyone unawares and resulted in abject national chaos. The re-routing to Poznan by Ryanair was a desperate attempt to land somewhere in Poland, and the resulting shuttle bus to take us back to Gdansk was hours away (via the roads that were er, blocked with snow), so the group opted for the train to Chojnice instead. We arrived at said town close to midnight with one change of train. What made the journey all the more bizarre was the guard on the first train, upon hearing our story of woe, personally called the driver on our connecting train and had him wait on the platform for twenty minutes! Can you imagine this happening in England was our refrain as we clambered aboard the train much to the bewilderment of the passengers. When our Polish friends heard what had happened they simply agreed and said it would never happen in Poland too.

The swimming commenced on Saturday and concluded on Sunday afternoon. Day one comprised of 25 and 50m breast stroke and front crawl heats in the marina of The Chojnice Sailing Club. Having changed in the main building we assembled in a corridor in heat and lane order with at least three heats banked up so that the timings for each heat were kept in place. The walk from the relative warmth of the large utilitarian club house to the starting point on one of the jettys could be likened to a walk of doom. The wind was so cold it immediately scythed through the temporary clothes that each competitor wore, as once you arrived in lane order the command to take off the clothes would be announced as you then had to enter the water with your shoulders under the water and hold onto the steps to await the starting whistle. This is commonly known in the swimming fraternity as a “wet start.” Based upon the prevailing arctic winds, sub-zero ambient temperature and 1 C water most self-respecting people would call it an arrestable offence. Armed only with swimming trunks, swim cap and goggles, time simply stands still. It is all in slow motion. The shock of the cold water is so comprehensive; nothing is left out as you desperately plead for the starter to blow their whistle, or bleep or whatever it is that they have – just start the race! And then in a flash it is all over. The 25m breast stroke races are on average 20 seconds and 50m races 50 secs and shorter for the front crawl races. This is then repeated for the 25m relay races which are mixed teams of four each with an age total that determines their race category – plus 150 years, 200 years and so on. When you complete the race its questionable that the categories don’t rise to 400 years.

Our journey back was a gruelling coach ride of five hours. One of our hosts Jacek accompanied us on the coach back to the airport and we stopped off for some food on the way at which Jacek joined me for what ranked as a truly bizarre supper. By this stage feeling a tad weary if not unresponsive as it had been a busy weekend to say the least so I found I was soon involved in a parlay with Jacek that was definitely on the left flank spectrum. We initially discussed Eastern European places I had visited – Norway, Finland, Latvia, Slovenia and how we both enjoyed meeting Fins. Such a proud nation are the Fins with a 20th Century history of battles won and lost with their more powerful neighbours of Germany and Russia. We equally agreed that their eventual Second World War saviour Marshall Gustav Mannerheim the Marshall of Finland was an excellent chap and yes, I have actually visited his personal log cabin and sauna. Jacek continued the conversation with much vim that quickly broadened to the Baltic States, the rise of their independence from Russia and his work with dealing with the protracted and often difficult negotiations for collective economic prosperity and the plans required for a consistent democratic infrastructure. He continued to explain his enjoyment at such work especially in London and how the affinity with the heart and soul of each nation is the key to good relations. Now thanks to my good friend Barbara I know why Jacek was so well informed and why I should have been way more responsive, why I shouldn’t drink too much the night before and misbehave as I could have learnt so much more. All in an Ikea restaurant. My usual visits to such an establishment are for bed frames, lamps and wooden chairs so I can’t wait for my next integration supper at the Gdansk branch of Ikea. This would not happen at Croydon or Wembley.

As consequence of the appalling weather many competitors did not make the event so the SLSC contingent was by far the largest and the organisers were eternally grateful for our attendance. The Club won lots of medals and it was a truly extraordinary weekend with all the ingredients of triumph, adversity, generosity, hospitality and kindness. The Polish nation gave us a wonderful introduction to their country in often testing circumstances and it really was a Polski Slep.

by John Coningham-Rolls

For those who may not know, a tiny bit of history was part of our weekend. Jacek was the first democratically elected mayor of Gdansk after the 1990 Solidarity-inspired revolution. (For those who may not remember, Solidarity, or Solidarnosc, was the Polish non-governmental trade union founded in the Gdansk shipyards in 1980 by Lech Walesa and others, the first independent labour union in the Soviet bloc during the communist era. Ten years later they were instrumental in dismantling the communist system in Poland, and Lech Walesa became the first non-communist president of Poland since the start of the Cold War, all of which contributed to the downfall of the communist system and the end of the Cold War. Anyone who remembers watching the live coverage of East and West Germans scrambling over the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and almost literally not being able to believe their eyes will remember how momentous that was.)

Most of the information about Jacek on the internet is in Polish, but I did find a rather nice picture of him at what appears to be a 20 year commemoration ceremony (see below). Jacek Starosciak When he told me that he was the first mayor, he said that that (ie his personal history) was why he wanted to help us, which I found really touching, and went a long way to explaining why they are so keen to host the world championships, and why they went out of their way to look after us. It made me very glad that we were able to make such a good showing and to integrate so well!

By Barabara Jennings