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Don Walsh, Two-Legged Polar Bear

Editor’s Note:  Our friend Don Walsh reached an impressive milestone this week:  He completed his 100th month IN A ROW of swimming in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of New Jersey.   In the following article, Don talks about his motivation, and gives some tips on how to handle the cold water.  While you may not join Don in an ocean swim this winter, his story may inspire you to get into the pool a little quicker at your next practice.

It all began when Laura Lopez-Bonilla, a good friend from England, told me she was going to swim through the winter to prepare for her first crossing of the English Channel.   I agreed to join her… but on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.  Throughout the winter, we emailed each other to report how long we’d spent in the ocean and to compare water temperatures (turns out water off the English coast was about the same temp as water off New Jersey).   We didn’t make any dares or bets; we simply shared a love of the ocean.

Laura and I continued to swim through the winter for several years, and she swam the English Channel as a solo and on relay teams.  Since then, Laura (definitely the smart one) stopped swimming through the winter, but I was addicted and have continued to find it enjoyable to both swim and bodysurf in the winter months.  When I come out of the water, even if my hair is freezing, I feel more alive than at any other time.   I didn’t have a goal in mind when I started this monthly ritual.   I grew up swimming in the ocean and have competed in ocean races for 30+ years, so it feels very natural to me and never like a chore.  The "streak" kind of snuck up on me, but now that I’ve reached 100 consecutive months (8 years), I plan to keep on going as long as I’m able and as long as it’s still fun. 

The winter-time swims have helped me in my work with Navy SEAL candidates.  For the past seven years, I’ve been mentoring these SEAL hopefuls, teaching them combat side stroke and helping them get ready to pass their SEAL entry test and to prepare for training in the water off Coronado Island, which ranges between 54F in the winter to 60-62F in the summer.    They have a huge advantage going into training if they can get comfortable in cold water before they go.   If they live in the south, I recommend lots of cold showers or cold baths.  If they live near me in New Jersey, I often take them swimming in the ocean starting in May (water temp in the low 50sF) and going up to the beginning of December.    These candidates have been very grateful for their cold-water immersion in New Jersey.  Getting acclimated is a huge advantage.  The winter swims also helped me prepare for a 41.5-mile swim around the Isle of Jersey.    If I hadn’t done these swims to prepare my body for the cold, the swim might have been a disaster.   Like the Channel swimmers, I planned to cover my body with five pounds of Vaseline and lanolin to keep me warm during the swim.  As my son, Sean, applied the greasy mix, my boat captain asked what he was doing.   "No you’re not," replied the captain.  "If you cover that linebacker’s body of yours with grease, we won’t be able to get you back on the boat after your swim."   So… no grease.  And without that protective layer, the water felt incredibly cold when I jumped in.  But then I thought, ‘I can do this!  I swim in the ocean all winter!’  I started swimming and didn’t think about the cold water the rest of the day.  

So from a Two-Legged Polar Bear, I offer the following tips for swimming in cold water:

Never go in the ocean alone.  Always have someone to watch you from on shore when you swim.
Go at low tide and swim in waist-deep water.  That way, if anything happens, you can stand up and walk back to the beach.
Keep your swims short during the winter months and build back up through the spring.
Have something to eat before you go in, to help prevent hypothermia.
Have dry clothes to put on when you get out.  Don’t be wet on the ride home.
Don’t waste time testing the water when you know it’s cold.  Just go for it!  Walk into the ocean until you’re waist deep, then dive in and come up swimming.
Kick!  This keeps your feet warmer than if you try to minimize your kick.
Enjoy the fact that you’ll always get the best parking spots and you can put your towel anywhere on the beach!