For many an ocean swimmer, the thought of swimming through winter sends a shiver down the spine.
So, it might come as a surprise that there is a whole world out there where more than 5,000 swimmers across 42 winter swimming clubs are dedicated to this teeth-chatting hobby.
Winter swimming in Australia has been around for years – ‘officially’ since the ’20s – but has become increasingly popular in the last couple of years thanks to the pandemic and cold water fanatics like Whim Hoff and cold water therapy.
Let’s take a look at the history of winter swimming in Australia, the winter swimming clubs that make it somewhat of an official sport, and how you can get involved.
History of winter swimming in Australia
Winter swimming clubs started in Australia in the early 1920s with the Bronte Splashers kicking things off, followed not far behind by the (now) iconic Bondi Icebergs.
In 1959, seven New South Wales winter swimming clubs; Bronte Splashers, Bondi Icebergs, Clovelly Eskimos, Coogee Penguins, Maroubra Seals, Cronulla Polar Bears and Wollongong Whales got together and decided to form an association – The New South Wales Winter Swimming Association.
The goal of the newly formed association was to organise annual winter swimming competitions where members of the seven clubs could socialise and compete formally.
Over the next 15 years, the association continued to expand and grow, welcoming a total of 74 clubs including now-defunct clubs Blacktown Beavers and Gunnedah Craybobs.
In 1976 the association continued to expand, welcoming clubs from Queensland and Western Australia and officially became the Australian Winter Swimming Association.
Fast forward to today and the Australian Winter Swimming Association has over 5000 members across 42 clubs, including over 200 Olympians and surf lifesaving champions, who compete weekly throughout winter from May to September.
Australian Winter Swimming Association Milestones
- 1959: New South Wales Winter Swimming Association formed
- 1976: Australian Winter Swimming Association formed
- 1976: The first Winter Swimming National Championships were held with 10 events available
- 2008: Introduction of female competition at the Winter Swimming National Championships with eight events on offer for females
- 2010: Over 85 years 50m category was added to the program at Winter Swimming National Championships
- 2022: 32 events on offer at the Winter Swimming National Championships held on the third Sunday of September
What’s involved in being a club member?
Each club has their own individual rules as to how many days you must swim to be an active member. The Bondi Icebergs have the strictest rules, with members required to complete 75 swims in five years.
If you’re keen to join a club, it’s best to check with the club on their specific rules.
For winter swimmers to be able to compete at the Australian Winter Swimming National Championships each year in September, the association states that each competitor must be a financial member of a winter swimming club. They must have also competed on at least five separate days in their chosen club’s weekly swimming competitions during the current winter season.
The Bronte Splashers are representative of a classic winter swimming club
The Bronte Splashers is Australia’s oldest winter swimming club and has continued to be a well-established club on the winter swimming scene since day one.
“The Bronte Splashers originated in 1921 when a few World War 1 returned servicemen started gathering at Bronte Pool every Sunday morning during winter for some aqua activities,” said Mr Martin Palfrey, Bronte Splashers Club Captain.
“They started calling themselves the ‘Bronte Splashers’ and since then it has continued till today uninterrupted.
“We actually found some newspaper archives from 1921 with a story about the men who started not too long ago. It was great to see them and see where the history of Bronte Splashers started.”
Mr Palfrey joined the Bronte Splashers in the 90s as a fun winter actively and hasn’t looked back since.
“I joined about 30 years ago, as I was spending a lot of time at Bronte Beach with my kids in nippers,” said Mr Palfrey.
“It looked like a fun winter activity so I jumped right in.
“We are a relatively small club with around 50 weekly swimmers compared to our friends at the Bondi Icebergs who have hundreds each week.
“But that is the joy of winter swimming.”
Over the years Mr Palfrey has seen winter swimming evolve into what it is today, including the lifting of the ban on female members.
“Many years ago winter swimming was solely for males only,” said Mr Palfrey.
“But not today, that has changed, now the Splashers welcome everyone regardless of gender, age and swimming ability.
“For example, last weekend we had a 7-year-old boy competing against a 79-year-old lady and everything in between.
“That really is the beauty of handicap swimming, it welcomes everyone and anyone.”
Winter swimming is largely social and Mr Palfrey can attest to that with many clubs having inter-club competitions and social catch-ups.
“Winter swimming is very social and most clubs including us host get together after racing and schedule competition days with other clubs,” said Mr Palfrey.
“For instance, the Splashers have a visit to the Clovelly Eskimos Club for a race across the bay, then the Bondi Icebergs are planning to visit us for a relay race this season. Where we can all catch up with winter swimmers from other clubs.
“We also have a big carnival at Icebergs in July where many Sydney and country clubs will compete in age group swimming before heading to the National Championships at Wagga Wagga in September.”
Mr Palfrey likes to describe winter swimming as “a group of quality people”.
“I have been doing winter swimming for 30 years now, 10 of those I’ve been the Splashers club captain,” said Mr Palfrey.
“And the club recently made me the 47th life member which is a great honour, but being around for that long I have met quite a few people.
“Over the years I’ve seen that winter swimming attracts people who are a bit different and from all walks of life.
“I love that I get to meet people from all backgrounds who you may not normally come across.
I will say that on a freezing August morning when I take my clothes off to plunge into a cold pool I do question our sanity!
The Bronte Splashers swim every Sunday morning from May until the October long weekend at Bronte Ocean Pool.
“We swim every Sunday from May till October and we meet at the Bronte Ocean Pool at 9:15 am,” said Mr Palfrey.
“The pool is 30 metres long so we have a one-lap, two-lap or three-lap race, which are mainly handicapped (where the faster swimmers start after the slower swimmers and try to catch them).
“People get knocked out over semi-finals and finals until we have a winner for each distance.
“After the races, we have a catered BBQ in the adjoining Bronte Park where we award prizes to the day’s winners.
“Each week we have a different member sponsor the day to pay for the prizes and subsidise the food and we all have a great chat and catch up out of the water.
“We welcome new swimmers of any age and ability and there is no need to call or book to join, just turn up at Bronte Pool at 9:15 am on a Sunday morning and introduce yourself.”
To find a winter swimming club near you, search our Winter Swimming Club directory.