When plunged into icy water, the body brings warm blood in from the hands and feet to keep the heart and vital organs functioning, leaving a tingling, burning feeling like stepping on black asphalt on a hot day.
Push past the instinct to get out and the pain only grows, according to record-holding Masters swimmer Jerry Frentsos.
But persisting in that state despite your body’s pleas helps build physical resilience and, swimmers say, manage stress.
A year ago Frentsos was in a pool in Australia setting a world record in his age group for the 200-meter individual medley, a combination of four styles of swimming. Competition is on hold now because of COVID-19, but Frentso still found a way to stay active and create a community of swimmers by opening his home on Duvall Creek in Annapolis to swimmers.
What started last summer continued when the temperatures dropped. Now, Frentsos has a handful of regulars who show up on the weekends for plunges into the creek.
Some swim with wetsuits on for as long as 20 minutes, others swim without any insulation for shorter periods. On Saturday, more swimmers than usual came to his home in Hillsmere to celebrate their love for cold water swims.
Frentsos had two fires going in his front yard, and the swimmers came prepared with heavy robes to put on when they left the water. The most dangerous part of the day is actually when swimmers get out of the cold water — the warm blood in their core goes back out to hands and feet, and the cold blood goes to the core. It is called “the drop.”
Difficult as it may be, there are advantages, Frentso said.
“To warm the body back up, all our muscles turn on and you just shiver,” he said. “Since I started really doing cold water swimming, since the winter solstice, I’ve lost 10 pounds.”
Denis Crean, who runs a business related to open water swimming, WaveOne Open Water, said swimming in the cold over time helps your body respond to other stressful situations.
“All those micro-muscles and all your capillaries are working, which normally they wouldn’t work as hard. So, over time, they’re able to respond to different stresses and body becomes much more efficient,” he said.
Andie Nelson of Arlington, Virginia, said she was led to the cold water because she wants to swim longer during open water races, but the temperature of the water was limiting her. She plans to swim the English Channel, the 21 miles of water that separates England and France.
Saturday she swam seven minutes in water that was just below 35 degrees Fahrenheit, to the end of the creek and back. Afterward, she turned the heat on in her van, threw on a robe and sat with the vehicle’s warm air directed into the sleeves.
“It’s probably the worst winter in my life that I’ve actually truly enjoyed. I’m almost dreading the weather getting warmer again,” she said. “It’s just it’s brought me to such nice people, such genuinely nice people who want to push themselves and want to expand.”
She said training using the Wim Hof method, she has learned not to approach the cold timidly. You decide to go in and you go in, no hesitation. She said since she started exposing herself to cold water daily she has noticed a difference in her mood and her resilience.
The mental game of something like a channel crossing is huge, her trainer Bob Soulliere said. Swimming in the cold creek helps hone skills like staying relaxed and breathing properly.
“All your blood vessels constrict really fast and then you just decide to say, ‘relax.’ It’s all decisions. That’s just a decision after decision after decision,” he said.
Kara Permisohn said in addition to breathing you need to remain aware that hypothermia can affect your cognition. There were safety boats on hand Saturday to keep the swimmers safe. She has been swimming her entire life, and started swimming at Frentso’s last summer. When the temperatures started falling, she kept showing up.
The swim practices have been a nice, safe, outdoor way to socialize with others and get out of the house during the pandemic, Permisohn said.
After swimming Saturday, she went to Frentso’s front yard to sit next to a fire and warm up her feet, clad in blue socks with fish scales designs.