As China makes the final preparations for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics that will kick off on February 4, and as athletes from around the world give the final honing to their skills for the 109 competitive events, the story of Fabian Beltran opens a new window on winter sports as well as Chinese culture.
Blow Hot, Blow Cold
Beltran comes from sunny, tropical Colombia in South America, where there is no winter. Back home, he enjoyed swimming in the warm weather, little knowing that one day, he would become part of a culture on the other side of the world that loves swimming in winter.
In 2008, Beltran started a new chapter in his life as he left Colombia to pursue a Master’s degree in education in China. His destination was Changchun in the northeastern province of Jilin where temperatures in winter can plunge to a freezing -15 degrees Celsius or even lower. In the thick of winter, he was amazed to see some people daring the cold and swimming outdoors.
“During my first winter in China, I was surprised to see people swimming in Nanhu Lake near my university,” he said. He was tempted to give it a try but since he did not know anyone who did outdoor swimming in winter, he didn’t manage to try it that time. Then one winter three years ago, when he had shifted to Beijing and was studying at Tsinghua University, a classmate named Zhao Guang, who was a member of the Tsinghua winter swimming club, said to him, “Hey man, why don’t you join our winter swimming club?” Then he accepted the invitation.
That first winter swim was “physically and mentally shocking” and he stayed in the water only for a short time. But something about the sport and especially the people who did it inspired him to continue doing it.
Every day at Tsinghua University the outdoor pool is open from 10:00 to 2:00. Every time he went, he saw several retired professors, who were in their 60s or older, happily volunteering to clean the walkways around the pool and ready the water in the pool, which sometimes meant getting into it and breaking the ice. As he learned how to swim in the winter and got aquainted with people who did it, he was quite impressed with their cheerfulness. He also enjoyed the experience of sharing challenge and accomplishment with others while keeping fit during the winter. All of these encouraged him to embrace this sport.
From his early swimming experience at Tsinghua to later joining other groups in places around Beijing, he met people from all walks of life, from retired professors to enterprise workers. In addition to opportunities to improve his Chinese language skills, he also found inspiration from the people he met.
Winter Swimming & Chinese Culture
As he became involved in this winter sport, Beltran realized that winter swimming is not a typical Chinese winter sport activity. Just as not every Chinese can do martial arts, not every Chinese can or likes winter swimming. This made him appreciate how accommodating the Chinese culture is, embracing a variety of customs and lifestyles.
Another aspect of winter swimming in Beijing that impressed him was the social aspect. He saw that swimming was just one part of the sport; it is a collective activity that brings people together; they share the experiences of swimming during cold winters, keeping one another safe, and encouraging each other to get into the water.
Before the swimmers get into the icy water, there is a warming-up process, during which some people do push-ups, stretches, jogging or some other activities to work up a sweat. Someone may measure the temperature of the water to estimate how long it is safe to swim. After people come out of the water, they use different ways to help their bodies recover from the cold shock. This part may include staying in the sun, playing games, and socializing together.
While winter swimming in a place called Sanjiaodi in Beijing, Beltran struck up a friendship with a retired Beijinger. He learned that the man, in his late 50s, had grown up in that area and has been swimming in the same place since his youth. A few years ago, he began to do winter swimming. Even though he does not live in that area any more, he rides his bike every week to that old place to swim with his old friends.
Beltran and his new friend often meet up to swim in Sanjiaodi and the Colombian picks up swimming techniques from him. It has also made him understand how friendships in China run deep. For the Sanjiaodi man, the sport is not just about him enjoying swimming and staying fit solitarily; it is also social interaction and friendship. Friendship is a central theme of Chinese culture.
Turning Harsh Conditions into Enjoyment
“For the swimmers I have met, winter swimming is a way of looking at winter,” Beltran said. They do not see the cold as something to fear but have found a way to enjoy it. This has shown him just how the Chinese find ways to overcome difficulties and grow through them.
In his three years of winter swimming, in addition to all the social and cultural benefits he has derived, Beltran has reaped many physical benefits as well. His ability to endure cold weather has increased – he does not feel so cold in winter any more. He used to have a knee pain, which doctors had told him would hinder his ability to enjoy vigorous sports. But now he feels better. More than that, he has discovered another activity that many Chinese people enjoy doing: “I have never seen a sad person doing winter swimming,” Beltran said. “Winter swimmers seem to be very resilient people who are not easily depressed.”
According to the comments posted by netizens on Chinese winter swimming website China-ws.org, people who keep up winter swimming gain various physical benefits, from a basic enhancing of their ability to withstand cold temperatures to improvement of blood circulation, and a sense of physical and mental rejuvenation. They also have a stronger mind: from increased mental stamina to a psychological sense of accomplishment. Winter swimming has been known to help people with depression. And the list goes on.
Beltran hopes that more people can enjoy the benefits of winter swimming, including the friendships made through it, just as he has.