Snapshot: Swedish children learn to survive in ice-covered lakes

Faces red raw from the cold, their clothes sodden and freezing, a group of children take the plunge into dangerous sub-zero waters while their friends look on.

For them, this is not for a dare or a laugh, but vital survival training for many Swedish schoolkids.

In 2021, 16 people were killed in Sweden after falling through ice, according to the Swedish Life Rescue Society. Around 100 incidents were reported that year. 

In a bid to teach children how to deal with a perilious situation like this, Vaxmora School in the Sollentuna Municipality of Stockholm County, introduced what they call isvaksovning – a ‘hole-in-the-ice-exercise’.

40 pupils from the 750-strong school take turns submerging themselves in the chilly waters every day for three weeks. The repetition helps their body to acclimatise and reduce the effects of cold-water shock.

It’s a matter of personal achievement for some of them. 11-year-old Siri Franzen spent two-and-a-half minutes under the ice before dragging herself up, beating her brother’s record.

Kate Streels, a champion ice swimmer who regularly races in freezing water tells that getting into cold water can be tough but exhilarating. 

‘Submerging yourself into water like this is a shock if you are not used to it. You feel every degree below five degrees,’ she explains. 

‘When you’re acclimatised, getting into zero degrees does feel very cold and your fingers and toes go numb pretty much immediately. It’s a unique and special feeling. Acclimatisation is key, which is why the kids in Sweden do it so many times. And they will warm themselves up slowly afterwards to stay safe.

‘After drop – when your body reduces in temperature even when you are out of the water – can be very dangerous,’ she adds. ‘But you get a real buzz and a natural high when you come out.’ 

From cold water swimming to our fascination with everything Wim Hof, there’s no doubt that braving sub-zero temperatures has hit the mainstream – but for these children there’s nothing phenomenal about being submerged in freezing cold waters. For them, it’s simply a matter of survival.

Children from the 750-strong middle school learn how to react when they fall through a hole in the ice on one of Sweden’s 100,000 lakes. The shock is visible on their faces as their bodies adjust to the freezing conditions (Picture: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images)
Ice picks, seen around this pair’s necks, are a vital tool for any Swede heading out onto the snow-covered lake. Without them, a submerged person would find it very difficult to get back onto the ice and out of the water (Picture: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images)
When the body enters cold water, low temperatures cause dramatic changes in breathing, heart rate and blood pressure. The sudden gasp and rapid breathing alone create a greater risk of drowning, so these children need to learn how to cope with cold shock in a safe, supervised environment (Picture: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images)
Gym teacher Anders Isaksson keeps the children safe with a rope attached to their bodies. He offers encouragement and teaches the kids how to regulate their breathing (Picture: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images)
Isvaksovning is a common exercise in Nordic countries. It’s an optional exercise, but all of these 40 children jumped in (Picture: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images)
Cold water plunges the body into shock. No matter what a child is wearing, or how heavy their schoolbag, it’s vital they regulate their breath if they hit icy waters – and know how to get to safety quickly (Picture: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images)
As he enters the 1-degree water, Elton grabs two small ice picks that are hanging around his neck and jabs them into the ice to pull himself out. He managed to stay underwater for 30 seconds (Picture: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images)
Lakes in Sweden routinely freeze over in winter. Walking and skating on them is second nature, so kids need to know what to do if they fall through. Sweden has seen an increase in accidents in recent years as milder winters make the ice less stable (Picture: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images)
Pupils jump into the hole in the ice, which measures about two by four metres. They are fully dressed and wear backpacks, to make the experience as realistic and challenging as possible (Picture: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images)
Afterwards, children quickly change out of their sodden clothes and warm themselves around a fire. Warming up properly afterwards mitigates against the risk of hyperthermia (Picture: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images)

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