Stroke after stroke shattered the glassy surface of the near-freezing water and steadily propelled Cheryl Fellman from one orange buoy to another — and toward an exclusive club of special swimmers.
Fellman, a 49-year-old mother of two and longtime Juneau resident, swam Saturday for over a half-hour — 34 minutes and 49.21 seconds, according to an unofficial time — in the sub-40-degree waters at Auke Recreation Area to cover one mile. It was an apparently successful attempt at an Ice Mile, an unassisted swim spanning a mile in water that is 41 degrees or colder while wearing only a bathing suit, swim cap and goggles.
Fellman, pending an OK from the International Ice Swimming Association, an organization that advocates for ice swimming as a sport and certifies Ice Miles, would become the 44th American to complete an Ice Mile, and the 424th person overall, according to IISA. She has 30 days to submit her application, but Fellman said she plans to do so far sooner.
“I’m feeling really great,” Fellman said in a phone interview with an audibly stuffy nose. “I’m sitting here nice and toasty in bed. I kind of have a perma-smile on my face.”
Fellman’s swim was witnessed by about two dozen people, including friends and family and a small, dedicated crew who ensured Fellman’s Ice Mile attempt was as safe as possible. Supportive responsibilities included managing the small crowd gathered and passing out pins of support, documenting the attempt, trailing the swimmer in a kayak while in radio contact with a doctor on shore, helping Fellman out of the water, swaddling the swimmer in warm garments, preheating her car and thoroughly documenting the attempt.
Jessica Paris, who wore a name tag bearing the word “Bouncer” as well as a smiley face, said the kayak, which was paddled by Adelaide Johnson, served two purposes.
“It is about safety, but it’s also about keeping the straightest line possible,” Paris said.
When Fellman made her way from one buoy to the other — a feat she accomplished three times to complete the mile — updates affirming Fellman was OK could be heard coming from the kayak.
Fellman effusively thanked the people who helped make the attempt possible and said both she and her crew needed to know the Ice Mile rules inside and out to maximize chances of success.
Jason Fellman, Cheryl’s husband, who set out buoys ahead of the swim and helped his wife out of the water, said the water temperature ranged from 38 to 39 degrees. The observed air temperature at 9:53 a.m. — seven minutes before Cheryl Fellman’s swim — at Juneau International Airport was 22 degrees, according to the National Weather Service.
Jason Fellman said despite the cold temperature Saturday morning’s clear skies were ideal for the effort.
“This is perfect,” he said as his wife swam methodically through the water. “The wind and rain makes it way worse.”
Cheryl said the air temperature didn’t bother her at all.
“Thirty-five and raining is a lot worse than 20 and dry,” she said.
Years in the making
Cheryl Fellman said the idea of attempting an Ice Mile first cropped up in 2018, when she participated in the Memphremagog Winter Swimming Festival, an annual event held in frigid Vermont waters.
She said the event was attended by people who had swum across the English Channel and completed Ice Miles. Cheryl Fellman said she thought she might attempt an Ice Mile someday.
“I didn’t expect this year was the someday, but the opportunity presented itself, and I just kind of went with it,” she said.
In January of this year while training for cold water swimming, she found her body having a relatively easy time adapting to the temperatures, and decided to press on in pursuit of an Ice Mile.
While there some hurdles to overcome along the way — at some point she started suffering nasal problems after long, cold swims; and there was some internal debate about whether to swim at Auke Rec or in Auke Lake — she said on the day of the swim there was no doubt she would reach her goal.
However, earlier in the week there were pangs of uncertainty.
“Your heart knows you can do it, and your body knows you can do it, but the head is being a little bit difficult,” she said. “I had to take out my training log and say, ‘You’ve been training for this. You can do it.’”
The affirmation worked.
“Even yesterday, I was incredibly calm,” she said.
There are significantly more Ice Miles listed on IISA’s website than Ice Mile swimmers — 613 miles compared to 423 swimmers.
However, Fellman won’t immediately become one of the Ice Milers, who completes multiple miles.
“After every cold swim, I probably have six or seven days of — it almost seems like allergies or an awful head cold,” she said, attributing it to a “frost-nipped” nose. “Right now, I need to give the nose a break and let it heal.”
She plans to again swim in the Memphremagog Winter Swimming Festival — set for late February, according to an event website — so she won’t be staying out of the water.
“I’m swimming the 200 and the 200 free there,” Cheryl Fellman said. “I won’t be doing any distance any time soon, but I will be staying in the water.”