Winter swimming is a vital part of a healthy, fun lifestyle in Finland. It’s estimated that more than 150,000 Finns regularly participate in the sport, with clubs often having up to 1000 members. So, it was no surprise to hear that more than 700 swimmers would be participating in the weekend of events at the 27th Finnish Winter Swimming National Championship being held in Oulu. With a splash of international entrants from Argentina, Russia, United Kingdom, Ireland and Latvia, the host organising body Oulun Talviuimarit club opened their doors to share the fun.
The Championship opened on Friday evening with the 4 x 25m freestyle heats. With 6 mixed teams from across Finland, and a representative international team from Argentina, United Kingdom, Ireland and Siberia, Russia, the event opened under a dramatic red sunset that lit up the water like a beacon of warmth. The first 3 medal positions were taken by Finnish teams and laid the foundations between the Finns and the international participants for a weekend where shared experiences were easily going to outweigh the few seconds spent in the water, or the medal rankings.
By Saturday morning, a blustery Arctic wind had brought snow, sleet and heavy, grey, damp clouds over the weekend’s scheduled events. The organisers and vast team of dedicated volunteers had created a beautiful 6 lane pool with pontoons and bold red carpet poolside, which considerably brightened the almost 200m walk from the well-facilitated Oulu Swimming Centre, to the starting positions. It was a striking image of simplicity and contrast against the dark steel grey water that every participant was itching to climb into. Hot cabins were on hand to host swimmers waiting for their heats. Inside there was a sincere feeling of bravery and camaraderie amongst the participants: like small teams facing the Scandinavian ice water as one united front. Ages ranged from the youngest at 6 years, Ella Kukkonen, to the oldest at 95 years, Lilli Itkonen, yet it was clear that every swimmer was united in mind and purpose to enjoy the thrill of winter swimming.
Despite the harsh wind chill and the spikes of sleet lashing across the open pool and keen supporters in the spectator’s stand, the day produced some outstanding results for the 516 swimmers who competed in 22 age groups in the only distance of the individual 25m breaststroke heats.
A well-deserved win came to Joonas Sihvonen from “Oulun Talviuimarit Ry” in the men’s 20-29 years age group, who swam the day’s fastest time of 15.46 seconds. In the men’s 40-44 years age group, 20 times event winner Tero Matkaniemi from “Joensuun Jääkarhut” winter swimming club chased another win with the part of second fastest time of the day of 15.56 seconds.
International participants Matias Ola from Argentina and Dmitrij Dragozhilov from Russia, were pushed into 2nd and 3rd final positions by Marko Isomaa from the Finnish club “Uimaseura Kangasalan Kuoho” and a time of 16.08 seconds.
The largest age group of swimmers for men and women were the 50-54 years age groups, with 36 men and 48 women competing. The men’s winner was the Finnish swimmer Harri Hultin from “Saaronniemen Saukot” club. The women’s winner, Päivi Pälvimäki from Finnish club “Lohan Seudun Latu/avanto” produced one of the day’s fastest times for the women’s events with 19.44 seconds.
Competition amongst the women was as fierce as the men, but the fastest was Sanna Aaltonen from “Tampereen Talviuimarit Ry” in the 40-45 years age group, who swam to victory in 18.05 seconds.
Individual winning positions were evenly spread across 14 different clubs, and represented some powerful competitors who challenged the international swimmers in dramatic style. The event came to a head on Sunday morning with the 4 x 25m breaststroke relay. Eager swimmers entered the event to take advantage of a final opportunity to face the melting ice waters of the River Oulu. A Finnish team raced to first position, with a united Finland, Argentina, Russia, Latvia team close behind.
No winter swimming event would be complete without crazy club hats, an outdoor hot tub and sauna beside the water, and all were well received. But Oulu can also boast its own resident violin-playing winter swimmer. As he played a magical tune which rose above the Subarctic wind to entertain the competitors as they happily thawed in the heat of the tub, he reminded us that winter swimming is not only about preparation, well-being and anticipation, but also about celebrating this challenging championship event with a smile.