Day 4: Scandi traditions

The 25m heads up breaststroke is the traditional ice swim, winter swimming staple and the biggest race of the entire event. Ana and I didn’t race, but took part in another winter swimming tradition: the sauna.

The quintessential winter swimming event, heads up breaststroke is the most popular race with almost 650 participants of the 1300 who took part in this year’s Winter Swimming World Championship.

Most of us Seals took part, with only four providing the excellent spectator support that we’d enjoyed so far. Ana, Sonja, Susie and I watched Seal after Seal parade out to the start line among the colourful hats of the heads up swimmers, and the serious faces of the racers, each putting in performances that fitted somewhere along that line.

The crowd, the colours, the vibrant atmosphere seemed to have notched up a gear, with more flag waving and cheering as loud as the hats and team wear. Smooth and well-organised, row upon row of swimmers emerged from the changing area and transition hub to ‘take off their clothes’, ‘get in the water’ and ploughed their way to the other end of the pool.

Ana and I had both entered the untimed swim. That meant we could rock up at our pick of allocated times and swim in a pool next to the event pool. With this not being a race day, we decided to have a dip after the last 25m breaststroke race. So, after Laura had finished, we went to the changing area.

With a bit of time before our pool time, and very few swimmers left in the post-race area, we began with a sauna. The art of sauna is something Britain hasn’t quite got, but the rest of Europe takes very seriously. At the championships there were four saunas: a big event tent with a central bench and eight heaters, a traditional cabin, a van and an old VW Passat.

The SaunAudi was our favourite, and this was where we started. This yellow hatchback had been cleverly converted, lined with wood and with a burner on the passenger side dash. Inside, we found a large, convivial Russian doctor in budgie smugglers who invited us into his ‘Russian submarine’ and gave us tea from his flask.

SaunAudi – tradition with a twist

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We then went back to the transition hub to be led to the pool, where we swam 100m at a leisurely pace, enjoying the view from the pool. Team mate Bettina had lent me her Gopro so we could film the experience from the swimmer’s point of view.

Back in the hot tub and sauna to warm up, we experienced the deep-rooted Finnish spa tradition of putting your body through heat extremes. This is said to reduce lactic acid buildup in muscles, induce heat shock proteins and human growth hormone, and release several other hormones like norepinephrine. Also, it feels good, releases endorphins and reduces anxiety.

Ana and I certainly felt very relaxed afterwards as we wandered back to our apartment through the snowy, picturesque streets of Tallinn Old Town. This day felt like a traditional winter swimming, and it felt good to reflect on the Scandinavian roots of this wonderful event.

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Day 3: Nailing new experiences

The Big Day. All those mornings when I lay awake imagining my start, all those training swims in the lake, all those practice sprints in the pool; this is where it starts and ends, all in the space of less than 18 seconds, I hoped.

Waking up hungover was not ideal, but a fair price to pay for the experience of the night before. I think that’s probably the difference between me and the actual serious athletes, especially the speedy Russians.

For us Seals, this was one of our biggest events starring Bettina, Claudia, Susie, Sonja, Ana, Jim, Pete, Laura and Melissa. And me, of course. The support team at poolside was on form, flag in hand.

As our time approached, we went to the warm changing tent to prepare ourselves. Changing into our swimwear, we watched swimmers doing serious warm ups, whirling windmill arms, lunging slightly aggressively, psyching themselves up. More in the taking selfies and talking nonsense camp, we did a few token exercises.

The nerves gave me an almost electric out-of-body experience. I couldn’t keep still, fidgeting, heart hammering as our heat was called forwards. We sat on plastic seats with our laminated lane numbers, then as the next heat got called up, we moved forward to the next waiting place. Fellow Brit in my neighbouring lane, Susannah, gave me moral support, though she said I made her nervous.

Eventually, we were up. Walking out along poolside was such a buzz. Even though I’m not especially patriotic, I welled up as I heard my name: “In lane three, representing the UK, Rowan Clarke.” – what a thrill!

The start was very quick – too quick. “Take off your clothes,” said the announcer so we put our Dryrobes in our baskets. “Get in the water,” and we climbed down the steps. Then came the beep.

I had been obsessing about the start. I knew my reactions weren’t the sharpest, and that there was no proper solid wall from which to push off, and that at this distance, and with powerful quads, the push off would be important. I was slow to start, and my push lacked power. But I windmilled like hell, and swam well, coming third in my heat by 0.02 seconds.

To start of with I felt happy to have finished, then disappointed that I swam slower than I had done in practise swims. Then delighted to be 9th overall in my category. Then even more delighted to be British number one in my category and British number two out of all women after our own 24-year-old Laura, and ahead of Susie. And 66th woman in the world. Result! On International Women’s Day as well.

In our categories, Laura and I were both ninth, Susie was seventh, Sonja 11th, Claudia 14th, Bettina 10th and Ana 20th.

As though that wasn’t enough exercise, after a very brief lunch of a small slice of cake and a banana, we hopped in a mini-bus to forest just outside Tallinn to go cross-country skiing. We had a lesson on how to ski, before heading out on the track through the beautiful snowy forest.

In the evening, we went to a presentation about different winter swimming clubs from around the world, before coming back to our apartment for supper, and then heading out into the beautiful cobbled streets of the Old Town to Tallinn’s smallest bar, The Furry Owl.

A day of firsts, incredible highs, and unadulterated joy. My first World Championship race, my first time on skis, my first time crawling through a tiny hole to get into an underground bar.