Martha Schwope, one of the regulars in the year-round Walden swim community.
Martha Schwope, one of the regulars in the year-round Walden swim community.

They’ll swim until the ice pushes them out

By Margaret Carroll-Bergman - Correspondent
(All Photos by Margaret Carroll-Bergman)

Marathon swimmer Natalie Lang can be found training at Walden Pond most weekends year-round until the pond freezes. After Walden’s deep freeze, usually in mid-January, the 45-year-old Lang, who lives in Watertown, will continue her training in the Atlantic. 

This summer, Lang swam across the English Channel. She finished the famous 21-mile swim from Great Britain to France on Aug. 22, 2022 in 12 hours and six minutes.

“I made it on my first try,” she said.

Three hundred people try to swim across the English Channel each year; most don’t make it because they get hypothermia. The regulations there do not allow for wetsuits.

In addition to her Walden routine, Lang went to cold water swim camp for two weeks in Ireland to prepare for the English Channel swim.

“I’ll get ice cream headaches for a chunk of time,” Lang said of swimming in frigid water. “The first 90 seconds are brutal. The most dangerous part is the afterdrop. Your body cools after you get out. Have to get out of the wet stuff right away.”

Lang, a social worker for elementary school students in grades K through 5, has set her sights on another punishing, cold water event — the Ice Mile.

 On a recent Saturday, the water temperature at Walden Pond was 43.2 degrees Fahrenheit. While Lang’s husband, Gordon, is not a cold water swimmer, he is there to spot Lang in the water and support her during the afterdrop.

“When the water temperature is below 50, she is fighting hypothermia,” said Gordon Lang. “It’s different than a Polar Plunge; it’s swimming for 20 to 30 minutes.”

According to the International Ice Swimming Association, an Ice Mile must take place in water temperature of 5 degrees Celsius (41 degrees Fahrenheit) or less, wearing just a standard bathing suit, goggles and one swim cap.  It takes years of training to prepare for an Ice Mile, and it’s dangerous business.

Apolinaras “Apollo” Sinkevicius, 45, of Lincoln was also at the pond training for an Ice Mile. He’s swum 300 miles this year, but knows there are many more years and miles of swimming in sub-zero water before he is ready to swim an Ice Mile.

“Cold water swimming is an extremely dangerous sport,” Skinevicius said. “One may have genetics helping, but the laws of thermodynamics apply equally to everyone. Can’t stress enough how dangerous cold water is and the need to take it slowly and methodically.”

When Walden is iced over, he swims in Pleasure Bay off Castle Island, although Sinkevicius is “not a fan of that location.”

“There is the safety of Walden, where you learn every rock pile, every sunken log, et cetera, and can judge your pace and location easily, unlike swim routes you must change due to tides,” he said.

This is Sinkevicius’ second cold water season.

English Channel swimmer Natalie Lang trains for an Ice Mile. Photo by Margaret Carroll-Bergman

“Last year I was in the wetsuit and still would hurt like heck during the afterdrop. This year my body can handle more cold for a longer time,” he said. “But that is only because I am in the water every day. There are so many things that can affect your ability to last in the water. Is it a clear day? Any wind that can cut your swim in half. Is there snow on the ground — that is a couple minutes subtracted from your swim due to loss of heat while walking to the swim. Is there ice already? Those shards can really cut you like broken glass.”

The cold water swim community is a small one, yet not all the folks who swim at Walden in the winter are preparing for the English Channel or an Ice Mile. Some are there for fun.

Concord resident Martha Schwope became a cold water swim enthusiast three years ago. The Covid-19 pandemic and the closing of the Beede Swim and Fitness Center is what opened up the world of winter swimming at Walden.

“That’s when I pushed it,” she said of getting acclimated to cold water swimming during that first year. “I stayed in until the end of October, then November, to the end of December, and then through to the ice. It’s a challenge. And, it’s a sport. You have to train for it and know what you are doing. “

“I’ll swim until the ice pushes me out, but will go back in the day it melts,” Schwope said of Walden Pond.

To stay conditioned while the pond is frozen, Schwope will walk barefoot in the snow. She doesn’t wear a winter coat, opting to wear summer clothes instead, and she doesn’t feel the winter cold.

 “People all over the world swim in cold water,” she said. “It’s exhilarating.”