January 6, 2016 / 12:06 PM / 2 years ago

Swimming in Siberia - taking the plunge when the air is minus 30C

Mikhail Shakov, 23, who recently left the army and is a member of the Cryophile winter swimmers club, enters the icy water of the Yenisei River on the first day after returning from military service in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, Russia, November 21, 2015. REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin

KRASNOYARSK, Russia (Reuters) - A winter swimming club in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk gathers young and old from all walks of life. They share a love of bracing, cold water. Siberian cold.

“The moment of immersion is a sensation of delight. Afterwards there’s a rush of energy and my entire body feels relaxed,” said Mikhail Sashko, 68, chairman of the club. “My wife says I am crazy.”

With a small wooden clubhouse on the banks of the Yenisei River, the Cryophile winter swimming club - named after organisms that thrive in extremely cold temperatures - has about 300 members.

These swimmers say they, themselves, flourish in air temperatures that often reach 30 degrees Celsius below zero (minus 22 Fahrenheit) or lower in the long months of a Siberian winter.

One picture in a Reuters photo story shows Mikhail Shakov, 23, a demobilized Russian soldier, swimming towards an ice-floe but sporting a traditional ushanka, or ear-hat. In another, photo Nikolai Bocharov, 77, rubs a snow on his body as he sits on a snowdrift after bathing.

To see the photo story, click: reut.rs/1ReETqo

Aged from under one year old to 79, the members include school pupils, engineers and retired construction or water utility workers. The club’s spirit of fun includes pouring buckets of water on each other when celebrating Polar Bear Day at a zoo in a suburb of Krasnoyarsk, one of Siberia’s largest cities. Like children anywhere, young club members have snowball fights - but in this case wearing just their swimming costumes.

Mikhail Sashko, chairman and one of the founders of the Cryophile winter swimmers club, bathes in cold water during a flash mob, part of a celebration of Polar Bear Day at the Royev Ruchey Zoo in a suburb of the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, Russia, November 29, 2015. REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin

Some members of the club say regular bathing in cold water has had a positive impact on their health. Yulia Klimenkova, 16, whose whole family are also members, says the cold water boosts her immunity and recently helped her get over a respiratory virus.

Vladimir Khokhlov, 71, a former builder and now a pensioner, dates his passion for swimming in all weathers to a September day in 1990, the year the Cryophile club was founded. While on a fishing trip on the banks of the Yenisei, he got up one morning and felt inspired to jump in the river. He hasn’t stopped since.

“I can’t live without bathing daily in cold water, it’s like a drug,” says Khokhlov, who also works as a caretaker, maintaining ice levels on an outdoor hockey rink. “If there’s no river nearby I have to find another way to pour cold water over myself from head to foot.”

Slideshow (18 Images)

Once in the clubhouse – where access is based on a rota because of the building’s small size – club members relax in the sauna, chat over a hot drink or play the piano.

It’s not for everyone. Klimenkova, who has been swimming with the club since she was four, says her friends praise her bravery but balk at taking the plunge themselves.

“Many of my friends and their parents say it’s impossible to bathe in the winter in the Yenisei River,” says 9-year-old Nastya Usachyova. “They don’t approve.”

For others, taking a dip no matter what the temperature is a way of disconnecting from daily life and setting their troubles to one side.

“All problems leave me,” says Shakov, the demobbed solder who is also an unemployed teacher, “The world around me seems beautiful.”

Written by Brian McGee Editing by Jeremy Gaunt

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