Russians – including Peter the Great, the eighteenth-century military commander Alexander Suvorov, the poet Alexander Pushkin, the painter Ilya Repin, and Ivan Pavlov of salivating dog fame – have been swimming in winter waters throughout history. Today, the sport is practiced in many countries, and there is even an International Winter Swimming Association. There are “Walrus Clubs” scattered across Russia (where practitioners of winter swimming are fondly compared to the animal – morzh in Russian). A precise count of winter swimmers – a category that includes everything from people breaststroking their way through frigid ocean waters to those who like to submerge themselves through holes in the ice – is hard to come by, since many practice this sport on their own, without involvement in any organization.
Medicine attributes low temperatures with many beneficial properties. Cold may be best known as an anti-inflammatory and pain “medicine.” Indeed, it is widely used in surgery.
Quickly immersing heart-attack victims in moderate cold reduces damage to the nervous system and increases the chance of preserving neurological function. As vital systems slow down, the brain is able to endure the reduced oxygen flow that comes with a heart attack. Cold is also useful in cases of stroke, increased intracranial pressure, myocardial infarction, septic shock, and after a liver transplant, since it reduces inflammation and preserves cells. It is also what helped Oleg Rezanov get back on his feet.
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