Cold Dip Into the Aura River

by | Feb 11, 2019 | Culture, Feature

Competitors are ready to take the plunge into the icy Aura River. Picture: Kathleen Cusack for Finland Today / Click to view gallery

Having mastered the art of avantouinti, well, at least to the point where I can lower myself into glacial temperatures with minimal shrieking, I am pondering the possibility of taking the next challenge. Determined to uncover the secret to swimming, and surviving, a 25-meter race in icy water, I venture to the Finnish Winter Swimming Championships in Turku on a cold weekend at the beginning of February.

It is 30 years since the first Finnish Winter Swimming Championships were held, but enthusiasm for the sub-zero sport has not waned. According to Päivi Pälvimäki, the coordinator, this year’s event has attracted some 1,000 fearless fanatics, ranging in age from two to almost 90 years old. As well as the 25-meter, 50-meter and relay races, there is also an option to take a fleeting dip.

I stand poolside for the 25-meter breaststroke race. While I shiver in my multiple woolen layers, the bathers bravely remove their bathrobes and descend into the frosty water. With temperatures in the Aura River, where the makeshift pool has been constructed, hovering around one degree, I sincerely doubt whether I would have the mettle to swim the entire length.

So, what is the secret? Pälvimäki introduces me to Sirpa Kivekäs, 73, a Turku local who has taken part in the past thirty Finnish Winter Swimming Championships. Kivekäs has been victorious on previous occasions, and I ask whether she has any helpful hints for prospective first-timers like myself. Her philosophy, however, remains simple: “Just do it.” 


“Just do it.”

Sirpa Kivekäs, 73

While I am somewhat disappointed that the key to racing in single-digit temperatures does not involve rigorous training—or at least an herbal supplement grown only on the foothills of the Himalayas—I am not surprised by Kivekäs’ response. In fact, since meeting my Finnish partner more than ten years ago, I have repeatedly heard the phrase, “Just do it,” as an answer to almost any conundrum.

It is an attitude that, in my opinion, is a nod to that innately Finnish characteristic: sisu.

While the term has long been used in Finland, sisu only came to international renown around the time of the Second World War. In recent years, the philosophy has become even more popular through the undertakings of the researcher and social activist, Emilia Lahti, and the author, Joanna Nylund.

Almost impossible to translate into English, the term is linked to concepts such as determination, grit, perseverance, and even, more simply, guts. It is, in my understanding, the tenacity to move forward despite a situation that appears grim or hopeless. There are, of course, similar cultural constructs like the Japanese philosophy, ganbaru, but sisu remains a captivating idea.

Certainly, from an outsider’s perspective, the concept seems to perfectly explain how Kivekäs and her compatriots manage to propel themselves through the water. It also, in some way, explains the palpable sense of triumph in the air as competitors emerge from the Aura River. While ice-swimming may not satisfy the definition of a grim or hopeless situation, there is no doubt that it is an impressive feat of physical endurance.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the 30th anniversary of the Finnish Winter Swimming Championships is jubilant and joyful. A huge crowd, most wearing fluorescent-colored headwear, cheer from the sidelines, and competitors chatter away in the temporary hot tubs, sharing their successes. Soaking in the festive atmosphere, it is easy to understand why Kivekäs returns year after year.

Perhaps, in the end, there is nothing else except to “Just do it.”