The Israeli Teaching the Finns How to Swim in Ice Water

Adam First says Finns are more open and comfortable when they're naked than when they're dressed, and that their stereotypical reservedness entirely dissolves when they're cheering for their favorite ice swimmer.

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Adam First in his natural habitat.
Adam First in his natural habitat.

Adam First lives in Tampere, the second largest city in Finland. When he passes neighbors and acquaintances in the street, most of them avoid eye contact and continue walking. But when First strips and enters the city's Rajaportin sauna, which is the oldest public sauna in the country, the same people who avoided his gaze will start talking to him.

“They’re a strange people,” he says. “When they’re naked they’re really open, but in the street they won’t even say hello. We are completely different. In Israel we’re addicted to pressure, drama and movement — and I so love the calm here.”

When First completed his military service 12 years ago, he traveled the world and knew deep in his heart that he wasn’t coming back. “I felt life was a much greater thing than what people experience in Israel,” he says. “I wanted to expand my horizons and observe reality from many directions, so I started examining it from Switzerland and South Africa.”

In Cape Town he underwent two seminal events. He studied deep tissue massage and met a Finnish woman. He traveled with her to Scandinavia three and a half years ago.

After settling down in Finland, First took an extreme survival course for nature guides. It consisted of 10 months of navigating in forests and sleeping outdoors, sometimes in minus 40-degree weather. He suffered severe hypothermia and had to be evacuated on a snowmobile. Even after he lost all the skin on his hands, First was undaunted.

“Sometimes we need to explore our limits in order to find balance, and I found my balance during this course,” he says.

One of the common activities in the course was skiing on frozen lakes, diving into freezing water where the ice was melting and then trying to get out. “Most people panic and become incapable of saving themselves,” says First. “Until that point I was very scared of the cold, but I tried swimming in the freezing water and suddenly I realized that instead of trying to get out immediately, you have to stay in the water and not panic.”

After overcoming the shock and momentary distress, First learned to adjust to the conditions and even practiced yoga in the water. He became one of the leading experts in Tampere for prolonged sojourns in near-freezing pools.

“I don’t know a single Finn who can stay in the water longer than I can,” he says, after swimming 12 minutes in the icy water.

First, who has become addicted to ice swimming, or avantouinti, which is defined as swimming in ice-covered water after breaking the ice, or where a spring prevents the formation of ice. For a living, he works as a masseur at the ancient Rajaportin sauna. 

A Finnish ice swimming competition.

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