The cold water swimming championships 2017

Making a splash and smiling in the cold

There was something for everyone at the Cold Water Swimming Championships at Tooting Bec Lido in January: medals for the fastest, an award for the best hat and a mass jumpin for Crisis, the charity tackling homelessness.

It was a day of cold blue therapy, when volunteer marshals lined up more than 600 competitors for 114 races at intervals timed to the second. The water was just 1.5°C, but there was barely time for swearing at that first freezing slap.

This cold hits you over the head. There’s no subtlety about it. It’s like panto, with brash fun, broad humour and loud outfits. People swim in glitter lipstick, joke-shop wigs and their boldest swimwear. Homemade hats feature monuments and anemones, igloos and an enormous iceberg lettuce.

It’s easy to forget that for some, it’s not just the taking part. This is a day of competition – there are medals to be won and official adjudicators keeping time.

People may take it seriously, but you would still be hard pushed to find a serious face. “You look so happy,” I said to one swimmer. “I’m always happy when I come out of the water,” he replied. The oldest competitor was 77, the youngest 14. There is no defining feature of the cold water swimmer, just maybe that post-swim smile. “How was it?” I asked one member of the Chilly Nipples relay team. “Terrible!” she replied. “But I enjoyed it.” Relay team names are a study in themselves. Some set a false trail (Munich Cricket Club), some are random (Cashier Number One Please) and some represent important work (International Institute for Swim Cake Studies).

This was a day run by volunteers, who hung the bunting, built the milk carton igloo floating in the pool and handed swimmers their clothes as they got out. In the grandstand, supporters whooped, hollered and blew their horns.

A man in a polar bear onesie with sequin knickers sold raffle tickets. A small dude dressed in fur with a pink inflatable guitar sold fairy cakes from a basket. Volunteers bought trays of soup and bread round for other volunteers. This is the wonderful community of swimmers, inclusive and happy and creative and kind – it’s only cold in the water.

By Jenny Landreth