This is the weekly Amplify newsletter, where you can be inspired and challenged by the voices, opinions and insights of women at The Globe and Mail. If you’re reading this on the web or someone forwarded this e-mail newsletter to you, you can sign up for Amplify and all Globe newsletters here.
Carol Toller is an editor at The Globe and Mail.
In the entrance hall of our house, there’s a framed needlepoint sampler with four cross-stitched words that whisper every time I walk past: “You never regret swimming.” I had the sampler made for my husband a few years ago because we found ourselves saying that a lot during summer camping trips as we stood at the edge of cold water, willing ourselves to plunge in.
We were usually somewhere along Georgian Bay on Lake Huron, where even in July, deep, rock-lined bays can feel frosty. “You never regret swimming,” one of us would say, and the words would push us, gently, in. When we emerged from the water – sometimes after a gloriously long swim and sometimes after only a chilly minute or two – I was always glad I’d done it. A swim in brisk lake or ocean water wakes me up, clears my head, turns a day that feels stuck in pandemic muck into something wonderfully silky and fluid.
Lately, I’ve been saying those words to myself earlier in the season (this year, it was at the start of May) and later, too (my last swim of 2021 was on a sunny day in mid-November). I’ve become something I never expected to be: a cold-water swimmer. And I grab any opportunity to do it.
In Toronto, where I live, I swim in Lake Ontario, which sometimes shocks passersby and more than a few of my friends. The water at the beach near my house isn’t as clean and clear as it is in Georgian Bay, but it’s monitored by the city and has been getting better every year. And yes, the temperature is refreshing (that was the word my cold-swimming father always used when he was trying to entice me in and didn’t want to acknowledge toe-numbing frigidness), but, well, I’ve said it already: I never regret going in.
People who don’t get the idea of cold-water swimming often dismiss it as something that’s only for hardcore, longevity-seeking extremists such as Wim Hof, who has built a global brand around spending time in icy water. But there are plenty of us regular people, such as this writer, who don’t think about plunging into cold water as a way to recreate the “merciless” evolutionary conditions that kept our ancestors’ “muscles and veins supple.”
We don’t monitor water temperatures with high-tech accessories or measure our time in the water. I’m generalizing here, maybe unfairly, but I’ve found male swimmers tend to do that (and grunt loudly when they go in). From what I’ve seen, women just throw down their towels and get on with it.
There are different approaches to going in (do warm-up exercises first, slip in and out three times to acclimatize, walk in up to your waist and put your face in). I don’t pay attention to them. I usually just head straight for the water and plunk myself in. Spending time thinking about how you’re going to get wet, and mulling precisely when you’re going to do it – maybe after this next wave passes, definitely once the sun comes out again – turns it into torture. Besides, you don’t stand knee-deep in a cold lake for the journey. You do it for the destination: the bracing jolt of full-body immersion.
And maybe you also do it for some of the therapeutic benefits that are increasingly associated with cold-water swimming. The research isn’t yet conclusive, but some studies suggest that it can improve mood and well-being – something that I’ve noticed every time I go in. Even if the boost is just temporary, for me, at least, it feels real.
One of the biggest movements is in Britain, where the phenomenon is known as “wild swimming” and many practitioners do it year-round. Here in Canada, some hardy people, including one of my sisters, do it through the winter, too. One I met recently calls it dipping, because in sub-zero temperatures, that’s often all it is. A brief submersion, maybe a few seconds, until her body starts screaming.
I haven’t worked up to that and I’m not sure I ever will. (And it’s worth noting here that I’d rethink my cavalier approach to cold-water entry and immersion if I started going in at sub-zero temperatures.) But I’ll keep pushing out the edges of the season for a while yet.
The thing about cold-water swimming is that it opens up possibilities. Once you’ve given up the aquamarine embrace of tile-lined swimming pools and learned to enjoy the cold splash of infinitely deep, sometimes impenetrable lakes, you become less particular about where you swim. You stop worrying so much about a weed or a fish brushing your leg. You start appreciating any swimming hole you come across, no matter how murky the water may appear at first glance. Wild swimming changes your relationship with water, as this writer suggests, and makes you want to protect it. And maybe it changes other things, too. During the pandemic, when pools closed and lake swimming, for a while, at least, seemed like the only option, it made me wonder what else in my life I’d been overlooking. What other everyday pleasures were right there, waiting for me.
What else we’re thinking about:
This story out of Nepal, by New York Times correspondent Emily Schmall, is fascinating on so many levels. I could say more, but why waste a good headline: Ex-goddess works to reform 700-year tradition. Her MBA helps.
Inspired by something in this newsletter? If so, we hope you’ll amplify it by passing it on. And if there’s something we should know, or feedback you’d like to share, send us an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.