Kennedy is recognised as one of only ten Ice Zero swimmers in the world, an achievement he adds to his nine Ice Miles (in water below five degrees). The 48-year-old has competed at the inaugural World Ice Swimming Championships but, right now, is looking ahead to next month’s Irish Ice Swimming Championship at Wild Water Armagh on Saturday, January 27, 2018.
Q: When and how did you get into extreme swimming?
I started by fluke in 2011. I was doing a couple of Ironmans and marathons and my body was… I’d an upcoming hip replacement and some very serious knee injuries, so running was out of the question.
Even walking, at one stage, was difficult. That led to medication, which brings you quite down, and somebody said to me, ‘Why don’t you try a bit of cold water?’
I said ‘I’ll give it a go’ but was thinking ‘holy shit, that’s mad!’ Even the two-minute job was excruciating. But I started to regularly go (swimming in the ocean) because I did get pain relief from the hip joint, which was to be replaced in 2012, and my knees.
It gave me a feeling of ‘at least you can do something’.
Q: How quickly did it get more serious?
I decided to take the wetsuit off and started to go in two or three times a week that winter. Instead of plunging, I started to actually swim, say, 200m at the Forty Foot, before I started to go longer.
There was no-one there with me because no-one was interested in doing long-distance in winter. No-one knew what it was.
A few of the old-timers said, ‘We’ve never seen anyone do that stuff before – never seen anyone go out three buoys and back in three buoys at 7am’.
They were quite shocked over it and wanted to know a bit more. I encouraged a few people to join the madness but not many were going my distance.
Q: Then ice swimming came along?
Yeah, I came across these terms, ‘winter swimming’ and ‘ice swimming’, which is five degrees or lower. Being an endurance athlete, I always wanted to push the limits. There wasn’t much information out there on recovery, planning, distance or acclimatising the body, so we completely winged it.
There were other people who were dipping in and out of it, but when I went to the long distance they said, ‘No, no chance’. The pain of the fingers and the hands was just too excruciating.
I got the hip replacement done, but even after that I was back in the water in five weeks, doing marathon-level swimming in the summer and ice swimming in the winter.
Q: How painful is it?
In the early days, it’s quite painful. To give you an idea, I went into the water on my own and swam too long – maybe a mile in eight degrees. I came out and found it very hard to get dressed. Anyway, got dressed, got into my jeep and waited half-an-hour to get heat into me. Then, I went to drive and I literally couldn’t see the road in front of me.
A squad car pulled me over because I was stopping and crawling – there was no parking even to pull in. They saw me with about 20 jackets on, shaking like mad, blue-looking and said, ‘What is wrong with this fella?’
I told them, ‘I’m not drunk, Garda, I’m sorry. I’ve actually been swimming!’
They told me to get out of the jeep and I said, ‘Can you give me a hand getting out?’
They put me in the back of the squad car, put a blanket over me and talked about it.
I said, ‘Look, I made a big error in pushing this’.
He said, ‘Yeah, for sure. We’ve never actually stopped someone like this so this is a first for us as well as for you’.
Q: Is the aim to push yourself as far as you can without hitting hypothermia levels?
It’s different now, but in the early days, yeah. I was focused on the recovery-side, but now I look at how do we prepare the body and mind for extreme water. If I did a mile in four degrees, now, I would come out very normal in my person. I’m very well known for my strong recoveries because of the way I train to prepare the body.
I try to get people’s mindset changed to preparation, rather than having these deep, hard, painful recoveries and coming out like a vegetable.
Q: What’s the coldest water you’ve ever swum in?
I’m just back from Siberia, in Russia, last Monday. I’d a record swim in 0.5 degrees… 2,000 metres. To put it in perspective, based on IISA (International Ice Swimming Association) records, I’d be the fourth person in the world to do it. It’s not something normal.
Q: Wow. And that’s with no wetsuit?
No wetsuit and no grease allowed. Goggles, one cap, you’re allowed earplugs, and one pair of standard togs. That’s all.
What I managed there was my complete max. That’s the hardest thing I could do.
Q: Did you have to fight your mind telling you to stop?
It’s a fear factor looking down at the water freezing in front of you – a bit slushy on top. It’s minus 15 degrees air temperature so they have to clear the ice off the water. Before you get in the water you could fail, very quickly.
It’s fight or flight. Do you want to get in there or say all the excuses you want, because there’s no-one going to put you in there. You have to want it so bad, because you know the outcome of putting yourself into that water.
The outcome would be, for me, I’m not able to walk afterwards. Or you’re totally incoherent. It’s a very painful and emotional recovery journey to bring you back to normal, because the body’s fighting all the time and extreme shaking.
The high-level recovery is not for everybody. There’s only very few people that would be able to absorb that.
Q: It seems like the definition of torture to me, so what’s the buzz you get out of it?
I’m 48, so (it’s) the buzz of doing something other people can’t do. I wouldn’t say it becomes addictive, because it’s very, very painful!
There’s a very big camaraderie in the whole community around the world too. That’s very special. When you become known for what you can do, you feel like you have a place there.
Q: How focused on chasing records are you?
It’s more about personal firsts… To say, ‘That’s where I belong, my name is in the record books, grand, done, don’t want to do it again, thanks, bye!’
At that level, there aren’t many people chasing them because it’s so extreme. Even some of the greatest ice swimmers in the world have gone there (Siberia) but they’ll never want to go back, which I understand.
Q: Before you get to the point of not going back, what’s your big goal?
My ultimate journey is swimming to Antarctica. I’ve an expedition going there in 2020. It’s Antarctica 2020, an international swim catering for everyone’s distances and levels. I started it about a year ago, because it’s quite expensive, and we have our boat and crew now.
I started to look into the history of the Irish in Antarctica, because it coincides with the 200-year anniversary of the founding of the continent, and it turns out it was a Corkman who found it – Edward Bransfield, from Ballinacurra, Midleton.
When we go in 2020, I’ll be representing the Edward Bransfield Appreciation Society and hopefully we can have some memorial or memorial service in Antarctica to signify his founding of it in 1820.
It’s a very proud thing for us.