Winter Swimming and Starting Strength

by Wade Stokes | March 08, 2023

wade stokes medal stand for the 100m breast stroke winter swimming

Gold in the 100m breast. The silver and bronze medalists left before the medal ceremony. I chose to compete for Estonia just because I have been living here so long.

My friend Jason got me into powerlifting a year ago, mainly because he got tired of hearing me complain about my lower back. A 56-year-old American living in Tallinn, Estonia, I had been trying to compete at masters swimming fitfully over the previous few years with no success, either for my spine or my intermittent dreams of late-in-life athletic glory. On Jason’s advice, I bought the blue book and started my novice linear progression. A year later, as a masters world champion in winter swimming, I stand as proof that Starting Strength can super-charge your athletic performance, even if your sport is unimaginably unpopular.

When I started my linear progression in December 2021, I weighed 185 lb (84 kg) at 6'0” tall (183 cm). With a bit of advice on form from Jason, in my first workouts my squat started at 82.5 lb (37.5kg)., deadlift 135 lb (60 kg), bench 135 lb (60kg), and press 77 lb (35kg). From there, I started training on my own, and I made a lot of mistakes. As a high school swimmer in Texas years ago, my coach had tattooed on my brain that sets of 12 reps were the way to gain strength, and I kept that up for way too long. In my squats, I just couldn’t make the movement work.

While still making some progress, I realized that I needed help. Last summer I signed up for a Starting Strength squat/deadlift/press camp in Brussels, where the coach was Steve Ross from Brussels Barbell. Afterwards, Steve agreed to be my online coach. He dialed back my weights, reset my form, re-started my linear progression, and then later switched me to intermediate programming.

Now, Estonia, where I live, is the northernmost Baltic country, just south across the Baltic Sea from Finland, with Russia on the eastern border. Sauna culture is big, and in wintertime people enjoy stepping out of their saunas in the countryside to take a dip in nearby lakes or rivers – after they carve a hole out with axes or chainsaws. Winter swimming is considered good for your health, and, as these things happen, someone started organizing winter swimming competitions along the way.

Decades ago in Dallas, Texas, I swam competitively in high school. Since moving to Estonia in 1994, I got into the sauna culture here. And, as a lark or perhaps mid-life crisis, I also started competing in winter swimming. Winter swimming competitions are held in 25m pools constructed in lakes or rivers in which the water temperature is between 0 C / 32 F and 5 C / 41 F. Swimmers only wear regular swimsuits – wetsuits or neoprene caps are not allowed. The longest race is one kilometer, and this usually takes experienced winter swimmers around 15 minutes (the world record is near 11 minutes). I might be crazy, but I am not that crazy – I don’t like racing any distance longer than 100 meters. The cold does take a toll.

When I started working with Steve, I let him know that I needed to swim two to three days a week, and that my goal was to swim fast at the Winter Swimming World Championships in Slovenia in January 2023. Steve cut me back to two weight workouts a week, helped me work my recovery around my swimming, and kept my numbers going up. I got used to being “that guy” with a selfie stick in the gym so I could upload videos and screenshots of all my sets for Steve’s review.

Thanks to Steve and Starting Strength, I am stronger now than I was in high school or college. I now weigh 210 lb (95kg), and my work sets reached the following top weights: squat 286 lb (130 kg), deadlift 330 lb (150 kg), bench 231 lb (105 kg), press 132 lb (60 kg). The numbers would have been higher, I think, if I had focused on recovery and had not been swimming so much, but the results were worth it.

winter swimming competition pool in lake bled slovenia

The competition pool in Lake Bled, Slovenia

In January, the IWSA (International Winter Swimming Association) hosted their thirteenth world championships in Lake Bled, Slovenia. Over 500 swimmers from 30-odd countries made the journey to compete. The organizers built a 10-lane 25m pool by the shore, right next to Slovenia's Olympic Rowing Center, where the water was 5.5 C / 42 F. Given the cold, in winter swimming, for safety reasons, all swims are from a push off the wall, all turns are open, and you can't streamline more than 5m off the walls.

What is it like as an old fart in these competitions? Well, as an ex-swimmer, I can tell you that your emotions are exactly the same as when you were twelve years old at a summer club meet: You go to the ready room, and the nervous energy before you get led to your heat is exactly the same. But the social aspect is much better – I know a lot of people from winter swimming events over the years, and there is a lot of cheering for your friends from other countries. (The wine and beer in the evening are much better, too.)

In my age group of 55-59-year-old men, I won three events. In the 100m breaststroke, I broke the existing age group world record by four seconds. In the 25m butterfly – a pure power event – I even qualified for the “super final,” where the top eight finishers regardless of age group got the chance to race for the overall gold. One of the competitors was 36 years younger than me. Thanks to the shoulders and chest I built up in lifting, I came in fifth place in the world at 56 years old.

wade stokes with fellow medalists in the 50m free gerrit curcio and andreas stanzl

Gold in the 50m free, next to Gerrit Curcio of Italy (silver) and Andreas Stanzl of Germany (bronze). Gerrit later smoked me in the 25m free.

Granted, racing in ice water in winter is not as competitive as events in pools in the summer. There are thousands and thousands of pool swimmers faster than me. But sometimes success in life is about showing up, and about being willing to do hard things. (You can compare the feeling before a deadlift work set to the feeling at the top of a ladder when you are about to step down into the ice.) No matter what, I can now call myself a world champion.

estonian gold winner group photo 4x25m breast relay for age group 151-200

Relay gold. My Estonian friends and I won a 4x25m breast relay for age group 151-200 (sum of the ages of all four swimmers).

And I know that I would not have gotten on top of that podium if it had not been for the gains in strength that Starting Strength gave me over the last year. Looking forward, I do not know how long I will be able to compete in winter swimming at this level. But the swimmers in their 80s and 90s at the championships really inspired me. In Estonia, I have found both my home and my sports, and I will keep swimming and lifting for as long as I can.  

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