James Blue Ice Norton

James Blue Ice Norton

Fri, 23 Mar 2018, A stone ya throw from the Baltic

White lightning strikes tw ice for world silver medallist James Norton

Samovar Serpentine Swimmers got Tallin to survive in icy water, and from our man in a van, a swimmer called James Norton writes about the ice of March.

There’s a new Cold War in the water too. The Winter Swimming World Championships are held every two years somewhere suitably chilly, Chile itself ironically ruled out as it’s too warm this time of year. Our ent-icing destination this time was a 25 metre pool cut out of the frozen Tallinn harbour, where the daytime high air temperature was -3, almost as cold as London the week before. In the current climate in some countries British swimmers might meet with a stony reception, but here it was Estonia.

Dropping us in at the deep end, the first event was the so-called endurance race, at 450 metres the upper limit for swim competitions at these temperatures. At the endurance race briefing meeting the night before, whose message can be summarised: “don’t do the endurance race,” International Winter Swimming Association ice-president, our very own John Coningham Rolls gave out instructions, which were then repeated in Russian.

Asked the water temperature, JCR replied “well in English we have an expression ‘arse-bendingly cold’” (well we do now!) which the Russian translated as “0.2 degrees.”

Conditions were so severe that double hatting was allowed! After passing the obligatory ECG and blood pressure tests  - JCR also gave a stern warning that anyone turning up drunk to the race would be disqualified – and competing in my age group against a bunch of clapped out old Russians I managed to bag a silver, and placed 6th in the 200m the next day. They took it well but just to be on the safe side I won’t be eating at Zizzi anytime soon and not just because it means ‘penis’ in French.

Team Serpentine’s Luckhurst brothers stepped up for all of the other races with tough competition from the flower of world winter swimming youth, Alan in Tallinn organised our superb accommodation, making the top ten in the 50m freestyle and the 100m freestyle and breakstroke. Where there’s a Will there’s a way, his younger brother finishing likewise in the 25 and 50m freestyle and breastroke, notably a podium-threatening fourth place in the latter. Huge respect too to Alan’s girlfriend Hannah, an ice-swimming novice who with great aplomb and without complaint swam 25 metres further than our motivational guru and legal counsel John Luckhurst, who made good his pledge to swim 100 metres for every degree of air temperature.    

The British medal talli was massively boosted by two legends: Winchester’s Rory Fitzgerald (swimming under a British flag on this occasion) and South London’s Ellery McGowan taking home five golds between them.

After straightening our arses in the sauna, the medieval gem of Tallinn’s old town beckoned, refreshed by superb Estonian chocolate and beer. I’m tallin ya though, enough talking Baltics. You’ll be relieved to hear the next world championships will be held somewhere with no punning potential whatsoever, as Lake Minnewanka in the Canadian Rockies is too far for the majority Eastern European constituency, but we are sanguine about our chances for 2020 in Lake Bled, Slovenia.

For the record, this was James' second time to win a silver medal at the world winter swimming championships.