(This article was originally published ahead of the 2023 Winter Swim.)
This year Skellefteå is hosting the Scandinavian Winter Swimming Championship, as part of the World Cup. For newcomers to Skellefteå this might seem an odd event but, after 12 years, the Winter Swim is now one of the most important and popular events in Skellefteå, where amateurs, professionals and thousands of curious spectators meet to enjoy this coolest of sports.
The obvious success of the Winter Swim and the attendant global interest – TV crews and journalists from countries as diverse as US Germany and Spain have covered the event – makes it hard to believe that the first Winter Swim, in 2012, very almost didn't happen.
The Winter Swim founders, Lasse Westerlund and Jarkko Enqvist, recently met with Norran English for a chat to tell us just how close they came to giving up.
Lasse Westerlund: Two weeks before the first swim was scheduled to happen, we had just one competitor. A Russian guy living in Umeå. That was it. We'd discussed having a plan B, just in case we didn't get enough swimmers. We'd talked about us two doing a kind of exhibition swim for the spectators. If there were any spectators. Doesn't sound like much of a plan B, does it? But one day, after I drove home from work, I said to myself, "This is a really bad idea - this is never going to work. How could we be so stupid? We will have to cancel it."
Jarkko Enqvist: And then you got that call.
LW: Exactly. And then, just as I was feeling at my most miserable, I got a call from this guy in Värmland. He asked me if there was going to be an ice-swimming competition in Skellefteå. And I changed my mind back right there and then and said, "Yes, there will be now!"
JE: Up until then, none of our marketing seemed to work. We just couldn't get people interested in the idea.
LW: But then the German broadcaster, NDR, came and filmed a piece. They wanted me and Jarkko to show them winter swimming. But, being a TV crew, they kept insisting that we have several takes of each scene of the news report. We were in and out of the icy water at least 10 times. Afterwards we were in agony from the cold. You shouldn't stay in the icy water that long.
JE: And we both still have problems with our hands because of the cold that day. We spent far too long in the ice water. We almost lost our hands for the glory of the Winter Swim!
LW: I'm not saying I don't mind the pain but that broadcast was seen by a journalist at Dagens Nyheter, who was fascinated by the ideas and philosophy, and who came up to write a story about us. It ended up as a six-page feature which really brought the idea out of the shadows and into the light. That was a turning point.
JE: The whole idea and project had been a difficult one. I first had the smallest germ of the idea when I worked with an Italian in Uppsala in the mid-1980s. He introduced me to the 'blue hour'. The blue hour is the period of twilight when the Sun is quite deep beneath the horizon. During this time, the remaining sunlight takes on a mostly blue shade. It's a really beautiful time of day. It really opened my eyes to the beauty that can be seen when the Sun is gone. When I eventually moved up to northern Sweden, I saw that people up here just didn't care about the blue hour. Everyone was just focusing on the darkness and cold and not enjoying the winter. I thought this was sad.
LW: Jarkko contacted me in 2007 to work on a project he was developing for winter tourism to help people appreciate the dark and cold (Lasse, Jarkko and the late Mikael Nilsson went on to form the group “The Happy Friends of Cold and Darkness” or "Dark & Cold" for short).
JE: We had the idea for a winter tourism project and I had always liked Lasse's writing. He makes complex things simple. So we gave him some money to have a look at the Bothnian Bay area for some ideas. And he ended up in Oulu in Finland meeting devoted winter swimmers.
LW: It was very exciting for me. I'm not very adventurous when it comes to doing things with my body. But this was exciting and fun. It made you feel very brave after you did it. I liked the culture around it and felt other Swedes, other people, should experience it. I had never seen these kinds of activities before, and it really got me pumped up. But Jarkko was not so impressed.
JE: (laughing): I was very angry with Lasse. I'm Finnish and I had done winter swimming all my life and didn't see it as exciting at all. Quite the opposite. It's just an everyday activity. I got very upset with Lasse - why was he wasting our precious project money on a silly idea like this?
LW: I told Jarkko that he may have been winter swimming all his life, but that there was no longer any such thing in Sweden. I had never seen it. This would be unique in Sweden, and we should do it. Luckily he listened to me!
JE: Lasse totally opened my mind to the idea, so we decided to try to do it.
LW: But we found it very difficult to get anyone interested in the idea.
JE: We presented the project to many people but very few people actually replied to any of our emails or phone calls. Our project was not taken seriously at all. We got so many no's. We didn’t want to keep running around to see people who obviously were not interested. This was now 2009. I was pretty much done. I couldn't see a way forward. Nobody wanted to do it. But then Lasse mentioned Leif Gustafsson, who was director of recreation at Skellefteå municipality. Lasse had worked with Leif and had been impressed by his open-mindedness.
LW: We also knew Leif took Jarkko seriously because Leif had liked a few of Jarkko's previous ideas, such as having hot air balloons on Vitberget. Leif knew Jarkko was a bit of a visionary.
JE: So we did this big presentation, including a section on the health benefits of ice swimming, and at the end Leif said, "You will get no money. I have no money for you. But you can have the ice hole in the Skellefteå river for free!"
LW: So we had to use our own money. The first year we had to spend quite a lot of our own money. An ice hole is very expensive to make. We have to rebuild our sporting arena every year.
JE: When it came to getting people interested in the Winter Swim, we must mention our friend Mikael Nilsson, who sadly died in 2016. He was amazing. He would talk to anyone, sell them the idea, and move on to the next person to persuade them. He helped us out so much - he once almost got arrested for going out on the ice when it was dangerously thin. He was just trying to check the thickness, but someone called the police. We miss him a lot - he was an important part of the Dark & Cold team.
LW: We had a lot of last-minute entrants, so we ended up with around 60 participants. But on the morning of the event, we came down to the ice hole at 6am to prepare for the 10am start, and it had been so cold – it was -36c, I think – that the hole had frozen up again! And we only had one old chain saw with us! We had another big panic. It was a big hole to saw. We almost gave up again.
JE: It seemed like hundreds if not thousands of people turned up. All other competitions in Sweden were cancelled because of the low temperatures, so we got a lot of media attention. Nothing else was happening in Sweden, so they all came here! We got lucky.
LW: I even got a call from a news outlet in Alaska. They asked, "How are you having a swimming competition at -36c? Are you crazy?"
JE: Looking back now, it feels great to have proved our idea was a good one. Nobody thought it could be done.
LW: But we did it, Jarkko, we did it.