If you’ve been keeping track of the weather this winter, the extreme cold in January might’ve caught you off-guard after an unusually warm December. The first month of 2022 brought Torontonians windchills under -30ºC and the largest snowfall in the city since 2008, with more than 30cm of snow falling in a single night.
The daring cold, although being another reason to stay inside during this pandemic is actually the perfect treat for this group of swimmers.
Thomas Benedicto, 37, is one of the few people in Toronto that use Lake Ontario as their own pool during Winter. In an interview with S@Y News, Mr. Benedicto said his journey with winter swimming started 3 years ago, with the passing of his sister.
“Her smile, her eyes, she was a beautiful light in my life” Thomas Benedicto, 37.
Thomas’ sister, Juliette Benedicto, was the definition of an exceptional athlete. She was a mother of 2, and a professional triathlete, training for cycling, running and swimming. In 2011 she won second place in France’s Challenge Vichy, and in 2016 she won first place in Saintélyon, the oldest ultra-marathon race in the country. She was also selected for the French Athletics Association 3 times in her career.
In February 2019, Juliette suffered a tragic ski accident in France’s Aravis Range, that led to her passing, as well as Tanguy Vulliet’s, a 24-year-old French skier that was accompanying her on the climb. Thomas shared that days later he was motivated to take a swim in Lake Annecy wearing his sister’s swimming suit as a tribute to her.
That’s when his journey with cold swims began. Thomas posted a video on his Facebook page after that first swim, which was viewed by more than 50,000 people, along with a tribute to Juliette and the messages of support that the family received from others during the time of her passing.
“Every time I’m in the water, I feel she’s there with me” Thomas Benedicto, 37.
After finding this connection in cold water swimming, Thomas began doing it every day in Lake Ontario when he came back to Canada after his sister’s passing. Since then he’s made some swimming friends who now accompany him on cold dives.
His swimming buddies are members of the Swim OP Facebook group, where Torontonians who want to take part in ice swimming can go find other swimmers or look for tips for their outings.
When S@Y News met up with Thomas to see him diving, he was accompanied by 3 other swimmers. John Tam, Gary Waite, and Scott Thompson.
Gary Waite is a U.S and Ontario Squash Hall of Famer, and during this January he organized a fundraiser with the Out Of The Cold Foundation for his “polar bear challenge” so that people could support the foundation if they saw Gary taking a swim in the lake.
Being a former athlete, Gary said that the swims “are easier to do every day than every once in a while”, which is why they’re so consistent with their outings. Every swimmer in the group also mentioned the health benefits they’ve gained since they started ice swimming.
The group told S@Y News that now even at home they only take cold showers, and they encourage everyone interested in the sport to do their research on the benefits of cold water immersion.
But what about the cold? Isn’t it dangerous?
Like most sports, ice swimming comes with risks as well. Most studies on the topic show that if swimmers are unprepared, then indeed there could be dangerous risks. But other studies conducted mainly with swimmers that regularly practice the activity, show improvements in areas like their immune systems, and obviously cold tolerance.
One of the lead researchers in the topic, Professor Mike Tipton from the University of Portsmouth, in an interview with sciencefocus.com, pointed out that the cold tolerance improvement “Makes you less reactive to the shock of cold water, but could also make you less reactive to stress”
The preparations for people that are getting started in the sport are incredibly important. In the Swim OP Facebook group, other swimmers encourage “newbies” to use bodysuits, neoprene gloves, rubber caps, or other things that might keep them warm. Experienced swimmers also emphasize breathing preparation, and not immediately diving in if you’re just starting, to avoid hyperventilation.
If you’re wondering how they get warm after the swims, well it’s pretty simple. After staying in the water for two to five minutes, Thomas takes out the hot water he brings inside of thermal bottles, and pours it into a towel, his rubber cap, and sealed thermal shoes. He puts all of that on and starts getting dressed again shortly after.
“Every time I go into the lake it’s like hitting a reset button.” Thomas Benedicto, 37.
Since Thomas began swimming, he reveals that it has changed his life. He said that when he doesn’t go he “doesn’t sleep the same”, and the cold swims, along with methods by Wim Hof and Eckhart Tolle which help him in the swims and life, are now things he says “I live by”.
And isn’t the water in Toronto dirty?
Although some Torontonians might think that the city’s shores aren’t the cleanest, data shows the opposite. Toronto recently implemented the Swim, Drink, Fish program in areas along its shores to monitor the quality of the water, and most results meet high standards for clean water.
Even though the city’s wastewater might still go into Lake Ontario or other waterways when at risk of flooding, the city has already started a project to cease out wastewater from the lake, and the first phase of the project should be done by 2024.
Toronto follows very strict procedures for water safety, and every day during beach season the city tests the waters for E.coli bacteria levels. If they get over 100 E.coli per 100ml of water on a beach, it is closed down. That is half the limit for the rest of Canada, where swimming waters are deemed unsafe if they reach 200 E.coli per 100ml of water or more.
As of January 28, 2022, the City of Toronto marks 8 of its beaches as Blue Flag standard, meaning that they’re under 100 E.coli per 100ml of water, and safe to swim:
- Bluffer’s Park Beach
- Centre Island Beach
- Cherry/Clarke Beach
- Gibraltar Point Beach
- Hanlan’s Point Beach
- Kew-Balmy Beach
- Ward’s Island Beach
- Woodbine Beach
For comparison, the Guandu River, which provides water for most of the metropolitan area of Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. Had E.coli levels of 4,900 units per 100ml of water according to a sample collected by a professor in UERJ(Rio De Janeiro State University) in 2021, a universe away from Toronto’s beaches.
If you’d like to visit the swimmers’ Facebook group, visit facebook.com
For more info on Blue Flag’s standard criteria visit blueflag.global