Forget dipping your toe in the deep end. In countries around the world, intrepid swimmers of all ages plunge into ice-cold waters for a thrill that can feel as sharp as daggers–and bragging rights that last all winter.
Welcome to the fun and frigid world of cold-water swimming. The hobby is nothing new. It’s been around for centuries in chilly climes such as Russia and Finland, and people have been crossing the notoriously frosty, 21-mile-long English Channel without wet suits since at least the 1800s. The Coney Island Polar Bear Club hosted its first U.S. ocean dip in 1903. And while polar plunges have become relatively common, some of these swims are not for the faint of heart. Only 11 people in recorded history, for example, have completed the so-called Ice Zero: a mile-long swim in freezing water, held in places such as Antarctica, Russia and Northern Europe.
Communal cold-water plunges are a great way to build camaraderie–and chase better health. Jitka Tauferova, 76, belongs to a swimming club in the Czech Republic (as does everyone photographed on these pages). She says she has not gotten sick since she began cold-water swimming. “The last time I had flu was 25 years ago,” she says. “My back pain disappeared. Better blood circulation improves healing broken bones, and my heart is like a hammer. I feel great.”