The History of the UK Cold Water Swimming Championships

As we approach another UK Cold Water Swimming Championships at Tooting Bec Lido, newer members may be wondering how this and the events we attend in other parts of the world all started. So here is the story.

In May 2004, Tom Butler spotted a reference on Reuters to an ice swimming event in Finland. Julie Brand, having spotted something similar in the Observer travel section, wrote requesting information (the internet was not what it is today!). Their response gave details about Suomen Latu, the Finnish Association for Recreational Sports and Outdoor Activities.

Contact was made and a very enthusiastic response and invitation from Mariia and Petri Yrjo-Koskinen, the main organisers of that year’s event, led to 20 South London Swimming Club members heading off to Oulu in northern Finland in January 2005 for our very first experience of ice swimming championships, without any clue about what to expect. What we got was fantastic hospitality, a pool cut out of a frozen lake, saunas, hot tubs, lots of food and drink and a winter wonderland. Most importantly, a chance to take part in the annual Finnish National Winter Swimming Championships – very generously being allowed to participate in races (head up breaststroke only) but not allowed to win! Well organised and great fun and, without us fully realising it, giving us a template for our own UK Cold Water Swimming Championships, yet to be born. However, the seed was planted, most particularly in the minds of Margy Sullivan and Simon Murie from Swimtrek, who on the long train journey home decided that we could hold a similar event at Tooting Bec Lido: a UK championships, the perfect launch of our Centenary celebrations in 2006.

And thus it came to pass that January 2006 saw the first UK Cold Water Swimming Championships: no such event had previously been held in the UK and few really believed it would work. It was an amazing success on every level due to the months of planning and extraordinary hard work and organisation of a core group and the support of many volunteers. It attracted 320 swimmers from across the UK and beyond. So many swimming clubs had a small core of cold water swimmers in their midst! The friendship forged with the Finns led to a delegation coming over to see our event, which duly impressed them. They loved the Lido and the Club and although we weren’t aware at the time, convinced them that we could be candidates to host the biennial World Winter Swimming Championships.

Finland Show A month later, a larger SLSC group made their way to Oulu to the World Winter Swimming Championships, this time as a fully competing team complete with hats, flags, pool dance routine (in which the SLSC came second to three Russians in tutus performing Swan Lake) and determination to win loads of medals. Again, we had a wonderful time but we were unprepared for the surprise of the weekend. Suomen Latu, represented by it’s president and Mariia Yrjo-Koskinen, announced that they wanted SLSC to host the next World Winter Swimming Championships in 2008 at Tooting Bec Lido. Up to that point the World event had always been held in Finland but they wanted to begin the process of it being hosted by other countries. Having visited and seen the success of our UK Cold Water Swimming Championships and the friendly yet virtually military precision of the organisation, we were their first choice. Our reservations about whether we could do it centred more on whether our dear Lido would be acceptable to those countries (Russians particularly) used to ice, snow and below freezing temperatures. With a mild Winter, it would be like a tepid bath for them. How would Tooting Bec Common compare to a frozen seascape? The Finns reassured us and the deal was done, with some trepidation, a large feeling of chuffness and the knowledge that we had an amazing team who could and would pull it off. Margy got to work on it on our return to London, well she might have had a cup of tea first.

The success of the World Winter Swimming Championships at the Lido in 2008 cannot be overstated. What we lacked in freezing cold water (it was about 3 degrees under blue skies) was made up for by a fantastic atmosphere, our wonderful friendly members looking after everyone, gallons of home-made soup, Chris Stanton and Egg Sullivan’s compering (narrowly avoiding the possibility of a diplomatic incident – need I say more). An hilarious evening barn dance with huge Russians charging round the room without a clue of what they were meant to be doing (note: a barn dance with caller may not be the best idea with a room full of non-English speaking participants), fortunately with no broken limbs.

Volunteers Two things stand out. First the amazing feat of organisation which went like clockwork and was down to the fact that a team of people, led by Margy, worked for many months to consider every detail and get it right and the willingness and co-operation of so many members and friends to make it all happen over the weekend. Secondly, was our surprise presents from the Finns. The sauna that we enjoy so much now was presented to the SLSC as a thank you to us for taking on the event. They sent their crack sauna constructors to build it (originally next to the fountain, moved later to its present spot). Additionally, they presented us with two wood fired hot tubs. So where are they now? A massive success over the weekend, we realised reluctantly that they would be extremely difficult to operate and maintain and, with the approval of the Finns, we passed them on to where they could be used efficiently and continue to be enjoyed.

After the success of the World Championships the UK Cold Water Swimming Championships, held again in 2009 and every two years since (we alternate with the World Championships) probably looks like a bit of a breeze but of course it isn’t. We have maintained the standard of success by the continuing efforts of a large number of people over a long period of time, both before and after the event. It has got larger each year, drawing in people from wide and far. It has spawned similar events here and abroad, helped to spread the word and enthusiasm for cold water and wild swimming which have gained considerable momentum since our first event. Our members now go all over the world for events and ever larger groups attend the World Championships which have travelled around Eastern Europe. Perhaps Tooting Bec Lido will host them again one day. In the meantime we can look forward to the UK Cold Water Swimming Championships of 2017, 2019 and on and on we hope. However, let’s not forget to acknowledge what has gone before to bring about this extraordinary achievement and the members past and present who have made it possible.

By Margaret Lipsey