Plunging into ice cold water to compete in a swimming race did not sound like fun, but for nearly 1500 participants the World Winter Swimming Championships was the highlight of their year.

Tallinn in Estonia was the host for this year’s championship, from the air it looked a small compact city on the coast, dusted in snow giving it a winter wonderland appearance. On the ground temperatures were around zero degrees Celsius, but the wind chill made it feel much colder.

The International Winter Swimming Association president Mariia Yrjö-Koskinen summed up the spirit of the championship “the colder the water, the warmer the welcome”. Over 35 nations took part from as far afield as Australia, Brazil, Argentina, the US, Europe and even a competitor from Mongolia, with the youngest just 10 and the oldest at 93. 

According to most of the swimmers it gives you a real legal ‘buzz’ making them feel thoroughly awake and revitalised. Many also are quick to report the therapeutic benefits of cold water swimming. Getting into effectively ice water is a shock to the system so to enjoy the sport; you must first learn to overcome this shock and continue to breathe!

Organisers in Tallinn had built the pool area adjacent to the harbour side, which measured 25 x 12 metres, with 10 lanes. There was a festival atmosphere with hot Jacuzzis and saunas where competitors could warm up after their ice cold heats. Races distances were 25 or 50 metres, breaststroke, butterfly and freestyle as well as 4 x 25 metre team relays.  Spread over 5 days there was plenty of free time to visit Tallinn and the surrounding area.

The Old Town was charming, but the highlight for me was the Gala dinner venue, the Seaplane Harbour maritime museum.  Dinner beside the Lembit submarine was somewhat surreal, especially with a live band performing at the top.

However, the most enduring memory of this event was the camaraderie amongst participants. People come from across the globe for this bi- annual event as strangers and left as friends, a potent reminder of what sport is all about!