Lambertville woman takes plunge in frigid-water swimming competition

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If ice swimming hasn’t yet been classified as an “extreme sport,” it could well be warming up to the distinction.

After all, there aren’t many competitions in which an athlete has to occasionally manipulate his or her fingers to determine if hypothermia — and its oft-catastrophic consequences — is setting in.

And if it is, to just gut it out a little while longer.

That’s what Lambertville resident Melissa O’Reilly will be doing this weekend while taking part in the annual International Festival of the North in the Russian region of Murmansk.

Along with a bevy of other hardy swimmers — mostly from the host nation, Scandinavian countries and South Africa — O’Reilly will submerge herself into a rectangular opening 25 meters in length carved into a frozen lake north of the Arctic Circle and compete in several races of various lengths up to a mile.

“You test yourself as you’re swimming to make sure you’re safe,” said O’Reilly, 32. “You keep touching your fingers together. If you can touch your thumb to your pinky on the same hand, you’re OK. But if you can’t do that, you only have a few minutes left, and hopefully you’re near the end of the swim if that’s happening.”

In other words, it’s just another day at the lake.

Several months ago O’Reilly, an avid competitive swimmer since she was a 5-year-old, had no intention whatsoever of taking a plunge into this type of sport. But the interest in challenging, cold-water swimming blossomed from a knee injury she suffered while running in an ultra-marathon — an activity she’s done frequently the past two years — late last summer.

To aid in her rehabilitation, she joined a club called the Coney Island-Brighton Beach Open Water Swimmers (CIBBOWS) through several contacts and began traveling to Brooklyn’s Coney Island on weekends for long-distance ocean swimming training.

While it’s a large club during the warm-weather months, by the time October arrives the numbers dwindle to about five — and O’Reilly was one of the group.

“It’s kind of a sub-culture thing,” said the Boston native and Princeton University graduate. “It’s a few of us swimming in the ocean without wet suits during the winter. It’s just more exciting swimming in the ocean than a pool.”

In October, O’Reilly decided to truly test herself by swimming seven miles from Sandy Hook, N.J., to Coney Island in 59-degree water.

“I had a real problem with the cold,” she said. “I got hypothermia and sea sick and had to jump in the support boat. But then I jumped back into the water again after a while.”

Bothered by her inability to cleanly complete the swim, O’Reilly asked veteran cold-water distance swimmers how she could improve and was told she needed to add some fat around the middle body as well as around the internal organs.

She’s been trying to do that and has been working out at HealthQuest in Raritan Township, where a hose is put into her lane to cool the water before she swims for an hour or two early in the morning, followed by a run.

She’s also continued swimming throughout the winter off Coney Island on weekends at 15-minute clips. Recently the water temperatures have hovered in the 36- to 37-degree range.

“It’s really helped,” said O’Reilly, who works at Princeton drug development company Inventive Health Clinic during the week. “Experienced winter swimmers tell me it’s all about tolerance, and the more you do it the better you get at it in terms of the body being able to handle it and then recovering from it. It’s knowing you have experience with this, you’ve been there before and done it, and not to panic.”

The opportunity to compete in Russia was the result of her connection with CIBBOWS. The club’s chairman participated in a similar event in Siberia in December, and was asked if there were any swimmers in his organization who might be interested in taking part in the Festival of the North, which is kind of like a Polar Olympics.

He submitted the names of a few people, who declined. But the 5-foot-9, 150-pound O’Reilly also was among those invited and jumped at the chance.

“I said put me in,” she said. “I majored in Russian at Princeton so it’s also a great opportunity for me to return there. This trip just kind of fell into my lap. I feel fortunate to have been invited.”

And she insists she’s ready to compete in Murmansk, where the ice-bordered water will be about 33 degrees. There are no starting blocks or sides to push off to begin the races because of all the jagged ice surrounding the “pool.”

“You can’t start a race the way you would in a real pool,” said O’Reilly. “It’s too dangerous — you can get caught under the ice. You’re just treading water at the start and then you kind of explode off for the 25 meters or whatever.”

Her parents, who live in England, don’t yet know about this latest venture. But her sister Rebecca, a Texas resident, and O’Reilly’s friends are aware of the trip and aren’t the least bit surprised by the nature of it.

“They all know I’m into these extreme kinds of sports,” she said. “They know I’m a little bit crazy.”

O’Reilly, who competed in women’s crew for nationally-ranked Princeton and then at Oxford University in England while working on her masters degree, departed J.F. Kennedy Airport for Russia late Thursday afternoon.

The frigid waters of Lake Semyonovskaya will be the site Saturday where she’ll swim the 25 and 1000 freestyle races, and possibly the mile. The next day she’ll be in the 100 free and a few relays.

If she successfully completes the mile, that would be O’Reilly’s first “official” ice swim according to the parameters established by the International Ice Swimming Association, which was founded just four years ago. The IISA has set a one-mile swim in water 41 degrees or colder, following the English Channel swim rules, as the definition of an ice swim.

Ice swimming — along with hockey and reindeer racing — has long been a part of the Festival of the North, which is a regional celebration that takes place in the towns and villages of the Kola Peninsula, a mostly remote portion of Russia about 130 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

Ice swimming has been popular in Scandinavian countries, Russia and China for many years and South Africa has also been very active lately. The IISA has been attempting to have it recognized as a future Olympic Games sport.

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