For many ocean swimmers, the idea of swimming through a freezing winter with no wetsuit would be a thrilling experience and a worthy badge of honour.

But, for Rockhampton local Joy Symons it was much more than a badge of honour and more about conquering a challenge for her big 40th birthday.

Ms Symons conquered the prestigious ‘Ice Mile’ in 31 minutes and 56 seconds in 3.6-degree water in a pond just off the Thredbo River.

In this feature, Suzie Ryan takes a dive into what the prestigious ‘Ice Mile’ is, Ms Symons’ preparation for the gruelling swim and the lessons she learnt.

What is the Ice Mile?

The ‘Ice Mile’ is a one-mile (1.6km) swim hosted by the International Ice Swimming Association (IISA).

Swimmers must follow strict rules to successfully complete the swim including swimming in water under 5 degrees, wearing a standard swimming costume no lower than the knee, no broader than the shoulder and no higher than the neckline, approved goggles and a silicone or latex cap. 

Before completing the Ice Mile swimmers must get a doctor’s check-up. 

With an emphasis on heart and blood pressure function, and complete an ECG within three months of attempting their swim.

While there are no specific fitness requirements or time limits to be able to attempt an ‘Ice Mile’, swimmers must complete a qualifier swim beforehand. 

“Because I’m from Queensland and it is fairly hot here,” said Ms Symons

“I did my qualifier swim the day before my official ‘Ice Mile’ swim,”

“This also meant I only had to make one trip down to Thredbo,”

“If anyone was thinking of doing the ‘Ice Mile’, I would highly recommend having more time between the qualifier swim and attempting the official Ice Mile.”

Freezing preparation

Having swum 20km around Great Keppel Island in 2020, Ms Symons was no stranger to a challenging ocean swim. Although the Ice Mile presented a completely different type of challenge.

This meant a much more intense preparation for one of the toughest swims on the planet. 

Ms Symons preparation for the Ice Mile consisted of swimming, meditation, breathwork exercises and freezer plunging. 

“During my preparation, I made sure to swim three times a week, followed by Calm Abiding Meditation twice a week,” 

“I also did breathing meditation, core workouts, freezer plunging, stretching, breath holds and altitude mask breathing daily,” said Ms Symons.

The most gruelling part of Ms Symons preparation was the freezer plunging in a deep chest freezer. Here she immersed herself in a freezer with icy cold water to get her body acclimated to the cold.

“The freezer temperature was set at roughly 4 degrees and I would hop in for three and a half minutes and then hop out for three minutes and back in again for three and a half minutes,” said Symons.

“When in the freezer I would put my face in and side breath like I was swimming.” 

During her Ice Mile preparation, Ms Symons practised breathwork and meditation by Patrick McKeown and Sally Dymond (The Body Specialist). This helped her to keep her calm in the Ice Mile and her freezer plunges.

“I found the Calm Abiding Meditation quite helpful in the beginning when getting into the freezer plunges,” said Ms Symons.

“I would breathe in warm, white rays of the sun and feel the red hot sun warming my body from the inside and then breathe out the blue cold.” 

3 minutes 30 seconds in the ice-cold water – “My nails feel like they’re going to pop off”

Managing the risks of the worlds toughest swim

The Ice Mile is one of the most dangerous ocean swims in the world and therefore preparation and safety measures should not be taken lightly.

Safety is one of the biggest concerns for anyone attempting the Ice Mile and Ms Symons was no exception. 

“Safety was always my biggest concern,” said Ms Symons. 

“So I made sure I was properly prepared and made a big commitment to safety,”

“This involved having a multitude of safety precautions including; completing a qualifying swim under the International Ice Swimming Association (IISA) regulations,”

“As well as having a medical team including a doctor and nurse was a must,”

“I was lucky enough that my best friend Elisha is a nurse so she came for the trip.”

“I also had to wear a safety belt and tow float, as well as having a paddler,”

“And I had to stay within 25m of the shore.”

Under the IISA regulations, swimmers attempting the Ice Mile must have an IISA official watch on to verify the swim.

Ms Symons with her support team

Ms Symons was lucky enough to have Australia’s first Ice Miler, Wyatt Song, as her IISA official on the day which helped with safety precautions immensely. 

“Wyatt has a certain way of doing things with people he trusts, even though they aren’t official safety must-haves,” 

“They were added bonuses and definitely made the swim easier,” said Ms Symons.

“Some of these bonuses included his trusty Nurse, Edwina,”

“She actually stood out in the snow in high-vis marking the turning point for me which was amazing.”

“Wyatt also made sure we had a makeshift lane rope to follow which was tied up across the pond,” 

“It was only noodles threaded on a rope but it was a big help to make things easier,”

“Not only for me but my whole support team.”

Conquering the Ice Mile

Living in warm and sunny Rockhampton in Central Queensland and with limited access to freezing water. Symons had to complete her 1km qualifier swim the day before conquering the gruelling Ice Mile.

Symons didn’t know what to expect before both swims but after completion had two very different experiences. 

“During my qualifier, my hands and feet turned into blocks of ice pretty quickly,” she said. 

“My legs also felt really heavy like they were made of lead,”

“It did take me about 200m to get my breathing under control,”

“And be able to keep swimming with my face in.”

Once Symons had settled her breathing and got into a rhythm of swimming in the icy cold water she had an out of body experience.

“Eventually my belly felt really warm and then drifted off into space,” said Symons.

“It was like a sci-fi movie with a wormhole,” 

“Where a character puts their arm in, except it was my entire trunk and legs missing in space and time.” 

“For all, I knew from my armpits to my feet could have been absolutely anywhere in space and time.” 

On completion of her incredible qualifier swim, Ms Symons felt elated and recovery was fairly quick. 

“It only shivered for 15-20 minutes after finishing,” said Symons. 

“But I had a great feeling of excitement, jubilation and was truly on a high.”

Ms Symons preparing to conquer her Ice Mile

The official Ice Mile was a very different experience to Symons qualifier the day before, even with the same preparation. Symons had heard many stories the night before about previous swimmers’ failed attempts at the Ice Mile. 

“Going into the Mile I was worried and nervous,” said Ms Symons. 

“I also had the realisation that I couldn’t take yesterday’s ease with me into this swim,”

“I was full of doubt and I didn’t think I was going to be able to complete it,” 

“Because people in colder climates had failed.”

Once starting the official Ice Mile, Symons experienced no amazing feeling of losing herself in space and time. 

Although she did feel her extremities turn to ice and felt like she was swimming through jellyfish with a mind of self-doubt.

“It took me about 200m to calm my breathing and get my face acclimatised to the water,”

“By then my hands and feet had turned into blocks of ice again,”   

“I was able to feel everything and my mind was screaming “You aren’t going to make it” the whole way,” 

While Ms Symons mind was filled with self-doubt, telling herself she couldn’t complete the Ice Mile she also had moments of calm and clarity. 

“Throughout the moments of calm and clarity, I would remember how much I loved it,” 

“But the thoughts of “just get out”, “you’re an idiot” and “you can’t do it” would always come back,” said Ms Symons. 

I discovered I had a stress fracture in my lumbar vertebrae from the intense shivering after completing the swim

Joy Symons

If it wasn’t for Ms Symons preparation and training of meditation and breathwork in the lead up to the Ice Mile she doesn’t believe she could have made it.  

“Even though the chaos of my mind I just kept swimming,”

“And Dory’s message of ‘just keep swimming’ rang true that day and got me to the end,”

“As well as my meditation training constantly pulling my mind back to a state of calm,”

“If it wasn’t for that I honestly don’t think I could have completed the swim,” said Ms Symons. 

While Ms Symons had completed the one mile (1.6km) swim in 3.6-degree water the swim wasn’t declared official just yet. 

Here she had to start the intense recovery process including being alive for 45 minutes after exiting the water for the swim to be officially recognised by the IISA. 

“After over 45 minutes of violently shivering, a few tears and an eternity of gratitude,” 

“I had successfully completed the Ice Mile.” 

“But recovery didn’t stop here for me, I had to do a lot of emotional work in the day and weeks following to come to terms of what I had just completed,”

“I also discovered that I had a stress fracture in my lumbar vertebrae,” 

“This was from the intense shivering after I completed the swim,” said Ms Symons.

Ms Symons swimming through lap 18

Lessons of the Ice Mile 

After officially completing the Ice Mile, Ms Symons became 1 of 422 swimmers who have successfully competed in the dangerous Ice Mile in the world. 

Looking back Ms Symons said the Ice Mile taught her more about herself and who she is as a person. 

“The Ice Mile taught me about myself, given me clarity about my relationship with swimming,”

“As well as giving me the confidence I had never possessed before and I finally understand what self-confidence is,”

“I learnt that self-confidence isn’t knowing you will win something or being cocky and arrogant,”

“But rather about knowing you will do your best regardless of the situation,”

“It also taught me how to use cold and heat as part of a healthy lifestyle,” 

“And also gave me a better understanding of meditation and proper breathing habits,”

“Overall, I feel like I have a greater understanding of how to live a balanced, healthy life,”

“And this is all because of my training for the Ice Mile,” said Ms Symons.

After completing one of the most dangerous ocean swims in the world, Ms Symons hopes to conquer the Derwent River swim in January. 

“I’m still trying to get the Derwent River swim under my belt,” 

“So let’s hope January works out for that one.”

If you are interested in learning more about the Ice Mile or thinking about attempting the swim, head to the International Ice Swimming Association website to find out more. 

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