Tom Hale is no stranger to swimming in cold, even dangerous waters, but last week he took on a new challenge—competing in the second St. Petersburg Big Neva Winter Swimming Cup.
“My objective is simple, to compete with other amazing global winter swimming athletes in one of the coldest, if not ‘the coldest’ winter swimming race in the world while representing the great state of California and the USA,” Hale said in an email before the race. In total, there were 211 swimmers representing 16 countries.
Hale’s performance at the Scandinavian 2017 Winter Championships in Skelleftea, Sweden earned him an invitation to swim in the Neva River event.
A member of local swimming group, the Oak Streakers, Hale has participated in the Bay to Breakers 10K in San Francisco, organized a relay to become the first team to make the channel crossing from Catalina Island to Laguna Beach, and braved the frigid waters of Lake Titicaca, in the Peruvian Andes. In 2016, Hale swam the bodies of water under three bridges in one day; the Hudson River beneath the Verrazano Bridge in New York, the Coronado Bay Bridge in San Diego, and the Golden Gate in San Francisco.
In this year’s Big Neva Winter Swimming Cup, Hale sponsored Russian athlete and competitor, Vladimir Turovskiy, who is paraplegic. “He enters the water by doing a handstand!” said Hale, who called him a hero and an inspiration.
The Neva River is 46 miles long and flows through St. Petersburg from Lake Ladoga to the Gulf of Finland, in the eastern part of the Baltic Sea. It is covered with ice between mid-December and early April. The day before the race, Hale reported, “ships are frozen in the Neva and the ice is cut. I’ve swum in cold water around the world but this is by far the coldest water I have ever experienced.”
Hale, Lynn Kubasek and Scott Zornig represented Orange County at the annual 2016 Memphremagog Winter Swim Festival in Newport, Vermont, where a two-lane pool was cut into the 18-inch thick ice on Lake Memphre. The water temperature under the ice was 31.5 degrees Fahrenheit.
The three-lane, 25-meter pool cut in the ice of the Neva River has ladders and turning walls on both ends, per International Winter Swimming Association standards. “The water is .02-.04 Celsius and outside temps, sub zero,” Hale said in an email from the event. Special equipment designed by the St. Petersburg Winter Swimming Federation was used to prevent the pool from freezing. Heated tents were set on the beach of the Peter and Paul fortress. Participants and spectators were served hot tea. A mobile sauna and a hot tub were provided for the swimmers’ recovery. As a precaution, an ambulance was on duty, close to the pool along with rescue divers.
Winter swimming in the Neva River has a long tradition. From the 1960s to the 1990s, the largest winter swimming club in the Soviet Union, the “Big Neva” was located inside the Peter and Paul fortress. There was an ice hole for swimming. In the mid 90s, the club building was demolished, and the club disappeared.
Three years ago, Roman Karkachev, his wife, and two friends, established the St. Petersburg Winter Swimming Federation to revive the lost tradition. “With old photos, we geo-tagged the ice-hole location and organized the first event there in March 2017, by invitations only,” Karkachev said in an email. In March 2018, they held the first Big Neva Cup that attracted 159 participants from 12 countries. As director of the Foundation, Karkachev not only organizes and subsidizes the competition, he also cuts the ice, designs the medals and participates, along with his wife and daughter, as a swimmer.
Hale, the only American who competed in the Big Neva challenge, finished third overall. In a heartfelt email addressed to his competitors, Hale expressed his gratitude for the opportunity to get to know his fellow swimmers, many of whom shared their life stories, native dishes and presented him with their countries’ flags.
He signed off saying, “Peace and cold water to each of you until our paths cross again. Thank you from the bottom of my frozen heart!”