Swimterview: Jessica J. Lee + wild swimming in Berlin

Monday, November 14, 2016

Jessica J. Lee / Photo by Paul Capewell

Two things I have never swum with: a touque and a hammer. But Canadian-born, Berlin-based Jessica J. Lee swims with both on the regular (WHA!). I met this swimmer on Twitter and am so inspired by her Berlin swim-ventures, her winter swimming and her upcoming book, Turning, that charts her swim in 52 swimming holes in and around Berlin.

LZV: How did you get into wild swimming? 
JL: I started swimming in lakes when I lived in Nova Scotia a decade ago – I had been scared of lakes my entire life so it was a big deal to start swimming in them. But I really picked up wild swimming when I was living in London, swimming at the Hampstead Heath Ladies' Pond. It's one of the world's few women's only swim spots, and is the only one in Europe that is open every single day of the year. It is pure magic.

LZV: You swim all year round. Outside. (Just typing that gives me goosebumps!) How did you start? Why do you do it?? Do you have any tips/strategies for extra cold swims? How long do you swim for? Do you swim-swim? Front crawl? Breaststroke? Paddle about?
JL: I started winter swimming a couple of years ago when I was preparing for my doctoral fieldwork with winter swimmers at the Ladies' Pond. I had always swum a long season, but had never made it through winter until then. I slowly built up by swimming consistently after summer ended. I try to swim a minimum of once a week (ideally three times) and when the temperature really dips (below 8 degrees) I start counting my strokes. 

The winter is the best part – the way it changes the body, brings you to life. In the depths of winter, if I'm breaking ice (I carry a hammer in winter!), I'll swim a minimum of 45 strokes. At that point, I'm swimming breaststroke while wearing a wooly toque. It's not so much a workout as it is cold water therapy!

LZV: Wild swimming is huge in Europe, but not really here, in Canada. Is it because it's too cold here? Any insights on why?
JL: I think the term 'wild swimming' is sort of a funny thing in the Canadian context. In Britain, it has made sense to really 'reclaim' the idea of swimming in lakes, rivers, and the sea, but in Canada we have such an entrenched lake swimming culture, so it doesn't seem like a vital term here. Really, it just means swimming in natural bodies of water/outdoors. In Ontario especially, it's a bit harder to swim through winter—though I've done Great Lakes swims in winter—but on the coasts, winter swimming is definitely happening. 

LZV: What are the differences between outdoor swimming in London/Berlin/Toronto?
JL: I think the big differences is access to lakes and swimming holes. In London, there are really only two decent options within the city itself – the ponds on Hampstead Heath and the Serpentine in Hyde Park. Toronto is also a bit frustrating for this reason – safe access to the lake is so limited to the east end or the Islands. I often find myself trekking across town for a five minute swim in wintertime. In Berlin and the surrounding countryside, there are actually thousands of lakes, so it's possible to swim pretty easily wherever you are. It becomes more a part of everyday life.

LZV: What are some of your favourite swimming holes?
JL: I love swimming off the dock at my parents' cottage in the Trent Severn Waterway – it's familiar, comforting. The Ladies' Pond on Hampstead Heath – the most beautiful and secluded swims in a lovely community of badass women. And the many lakes of Berlin... my weekly swim is Weisser See, an urban lake in a park, because it's near my house. But I love so many lakes here: sandy, clear lakes like Habermannsee, which was a quarry; forest lakes like Bötzsee; enormous blue swathes of water like Wandlitzsee. There are too many to choose from.

LZV: You're writing a swimming book (!!) So amazing and I love the "rules" for your 52 swimming holes:  no swimming pools, no wetsuits. All the lakes must be reachable by public transport, bike, or on foot. All must be reasonable distances (i.e. day trips) from central Berlin. I almost can't imagine being able to access so many different lakes from a city centre. What have been some highlights? What has been completely unexpected?
JL: Writing Turning was such an extraordinary time for me. I spent an entire year exploring the lakes near my home in Berlin, which allowed me to really begin to feel at home in the landscape here. It's strange, but I know my way around the countryside near Berlin better than anywhere in the world now! The whole process had highs and lows - it was a beautiful, enlivening experience to swim through the seasons, but it also began to grate at some points, when I was tired of trekking out every weekend and just wanted to hide away for winter. 

I didn't expect to find it as frustrating or emotional as I did. It took a lot of mental wrangling, not least because I was trying to finish my PhD at the same time. But now that it's all done, I feel stronger for it. I think it taught me a lot about how strong I am, and that I can often be a bit too hard on myself (like, say, forcing myself to swim in 52 lakes...). The people here in Berlin and Brandenburg were so encouraging and kind throughout the process, and that really helped. And my German improved a fair bit. The book is out in June in Canada with Hamish Hamilton/Penguin Canada.

Some of my swimming links/tips:
The UK Outdoor Swimming Society has a great Instagram feed.

When I was working on my book I became obsessed with lake science, so I love Sally Warring's Instagram feed, which is mostly microscopic videos of algae.

My lovely swim buddy Nell Frizzell wrote a guide to winter swimming for the Guardian a couple years ago.

Amy Liptrot's memoir, The Outrun, about recovery and the islands of Orkney feature some beautiful passages on winter swimming. A must read.

Thanks so much, Jessica!!!

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