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'Incredible': Local woman joins cool crew of Canadian ice swimmers

Melanie Van Pypen one of 12 Canadians to receive International Ice Swimming Association recognition for one-mile ice water swim

Lake swimming, for most people, ends after the Labour Day weekend.

Melanie Van Pypen, of Oro-Medonte, isn't like most people.

While others bundled up in December, January and February, Van Pypen continued to swim in open water.

Her goal was to complete a one-mile swim in water less than 5 C for official recognition with the International Ice Swimming Association (IISA).

On April 20 at 8 a.m., she swam a mile (1,609 metres) in Kempenfelt Bay in 4.47 C water in 32.38 minutes.

"The water was perfect, and the weather outside — it was snowing — wasn't what we were expecting, but it was a calm morning," said Van Pypen.

A photographer and videographer recorded the swim to verify its completion and sent the evidence to the IISA in South Africa. Van Pypen had eight people on her support team, including a re-warming team.

"You are mildly hypothermic when you finish," she said.

"I was a bit surprised that I did it. It felt like an accomplishment. So few people have done it." 

Van Pypen is only the 12th Canadian swimmer to have completed the ice water mile under the IISA. Of the other 11, seven are women and four are men.

Swimmers are only allowed to wear a swim suit, a cap and goggles. No grease or flippers or neoprene is allowed. They must swim unassisted and uninterrupted to meet the IISA standard.

Now that she's completed the mile, what's next?

Van Pypen plans to compete in the sixth IISA World Championships in Molveno, Italy, on Jan. 14, 2025. She's already qualified for four events — the 1,000-, 500-, 100- and 50-metre freestyle races. She is also trying to qualify for two events in butterfly. Qualifiers must meet a qualifying time. For example, women must complete a 1,000-metre swim in 25.12 minutes or less.

"If it all goes well, I'll be going to represent Canada," she said.

Athletes must cover all their own expenses and entry fees for events. Van Pypen will soon start to looking for sponsors.

"It's a big investment, but it's a big opportunity," she said.

Canada can send up to 10 athletes to the world championships. Van Pypen went to an ice swimming competition in Vermont in February and met other Canadians who are hoping to compete at the world championships as well.

Ice swimming is a relatively new, extreme sport. The IISA formed in 2009. It now has a membership of 73 countries with swimmers who can withstand ice-cold water.

"I'm used to being cold. Cold doesn't bother me in the way that it bothers other people," Van Pypen said.

"When I'm in the water, I say, 'Look at this beautiful lake that I get to swim in year round.' What a privilege. It's pretty incredible."

Van Pypen grew up swimming and competing with the Barrie Trojans. As an adult, she started open-water swimming in Bass Lake, Lake Couchiching, Lake Simcoe, Georgian Bay and Lake Superior (when on vacation).

"I always extended my open-water swimming season for as long as I could until the water was too cold," she said.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, she decided to try cold dipping with her husband in Lake Simcoe in December.

While that was enough for him to say, 'Been there, done that,' Van Pypen wanted more.

"I wasn't in for very long the first time. It was a big shock response, but it helped me extend my swimming season a little further," she said.

Then, in 2022, she started swimming and didn't stop.

"I was swimming in the summer and I made it all the way through. I set a goal of swimming a kilometre in ice water, which I did by the end of that winter," she said.

Josef Polcz, of Barrie, is also an ice swimmer and he maintains a large, pool-sized hole in the ice at Centennial Beach all winter so he and other ice swimmers can practice.

Van Pypen also trains indoors at the Orillia Recreation Centre pool. Last year, she was aiming for the qualifier for the IISA mile swim.

"I did that last December with an observer. I was really happy that I did it and was able to qualify to swim the mile. I made the plan to do it in 2024, and then the weather was right and the water was right, so I made the plan to meet the team on April 20, and everything worked out," she said.

Those interested in sponsoring Van Pypen can email her at [email protected].

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Gisele Winton Sarvis

About the Author: Gisele Winton Sarvis

Gisele Winton Sarvis is an award winning journalist and photographer who has focused on telling the stories of the people of Simcoe County for more than 25 years
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