‘In The Water’s Embrace, I Feel Part Of The Whole’

Author Jian Ping added winter swims to her routine, and it has been magical.

Jian Ping
Jian Ping Courtesy of Jian Ping. Illustration by Jessica Martinaitis.
Jian Ping
Jian Ping Courtesy of Jian Ping. Illustration by Jessica Martinaitis.

‘In The Water’s Embrace, I Feel Part Of The Whole’

Author Jian Ping added winter swims to her routine, and it has been magical.

I’ve been swimming in Lake Michigan for a decade, spring through fall.

To escape the pandemic, I’ve added winter swims: air and water both about 30 degrees, plus wind chill. It’s magical.

As I swim, conditions change constantly: water blue, green, murky or clear; waves edged by sunrise or low clouds. Choppy water can threaten, but I float with it.

In the water’s embrace, I feel part of the whole. It feels spiritual: a condensed moment of engagement and flow, of being alive and living.

“It’s a mind game,” one winter swimmer tells me.

During the pandemic’s confinement, open water swimming has become a lifeline and winter swimming, a new adventure. It helps me gain stamina, strength and resilience against the cold, and against the havoc the pandemic has created.

While I have to observe boundaries during the pandemic, in the water, I’m free.

So I find myself back at the lake each morning despite, or maybe because of, the cold.

I love the electrifying effect of the icy water on initial contact. Even under a wetsuit, neoprene gloves and booties, I feel the shock.

When my unprotected face submerges, I feel stinging pain, then numbness.

But after the first “flight” reaction that gets my heart beating in my throat, my body shifts into “fight” mode: My heartbeat slows, and my torso draws enough energy to keep it safe.

The hands and feet seem to receive secondary treatment from the brain. When they become too cold and are hurting too much, usually in about 15 to 20 minutes, I know it’s time to get out.

Afterward, I struggle to change into dry clothing with numbed fingers. And when my shivering stops, the benefits start to manifest: My mind and body are in a state of wellness and health at a level I have never experienced before, and I’m so full of energy that I’m ready to face any obstacle.

Even the pandemic feels at bay.

A woman smiles happily as she floats in a hole in the ice.
Jian Ping posing while breaking ice with a small ax at 12th Street Beach on Feb. 12, 2021. Photo taken by Qing Li/Courtesy of Jian Ping

In January, the lake is sloshed with ice chunks and, for three weeks in February, is frozen solid. I find myself swinging a huge axe to hack open a large hole with fellow swimmers at “my” beach. We wade in for a polar plunge in our regular swimsuits.

“Cold but nice!” one swimmer yells, laying her head on the edge of the ice as if it were a comforting pillow. I feel the cold water pinching my legs as I step in, but after a minute, every cell in my body is alert and alive.

Here at the lake, I enjoy the bonus of safe socializing and camaraderie. The air is fresh. We stay distanced. I learn so much from them.

With the arrival of March, all the ice disappears.

I’m able to swim in totally open water now and know I’ll swim through all four seasons.

Winter swim has made me more resilient, more positive about breaking boundaries and overcoming obstacles.

About the author: Jian Ping is the author of “Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China,” which has been made into an award-winning documentary film of the same title. Winter swimming is part of her new book with a working title: “Soul Treks: Healing by Trekking in Nepal and Japan, and Pandemic-Virtually on the Camino.”

Mariah Woelfel produced this story for audio. Follow her @MariahWoelfel. Jessica Martinaitis and Mary Hall produced this for digital. Follow them @jess_morgan and @hall_marye.