Ice Breaker: Jaimie Monahan
Swimming in water under 5°C gives most people the shivers just thinking about it, but not famed ice swimmer Jaimie Monahan. We chat to her about mental resilience and the joy she finds in taking the plunge
Photography by Arik Thormahlen
Ice swimmer Jamie Monahan grew up in upstate New York in a small town next to the Hudson River. After graduating from the State University of New York, she drifted downstream to Manhattan and worked on Wall Street for 20 years for some of the world’s best investment banks and management consulting firms. In contrast to her fast-paced working lifestyle, in 2007, aged 27, Jamie began her open water swimming adventures and has been breaking records ever since. In 2018, she broke the Guinness World Record World First as the first person to complete the Ice Sevens Challenge, where the water temperature was under 5°C, and the following year, she completed the first ever non-stop solo Quadruple Manhattan Circumnavigation swim. Now living and working in Australia, we find out more about Jaimie and her mind-blowing hobby.
Glorious: Did you enjoy playing/have an interest in sports as a child, in particular water sports?
Jaimie Monahan: I had absolutely no interest in sport until I discovered swimming. My parents signed me up for soccer/football and I’d get completely distracted from the game picking dandelions rather than paying attention to the ball. I started pool swimming in the summer and just loved being in the water. I swam through university and enjoyed being part of a team and challenging myself physically.
Glorious: Did you enjoy open-water swimming instantly or was it a sport that you grew to love – can you remember how you felt after your first swim?
Jaimie Monahan: My first open water swim was in a wetsuit in the San Francisco Bay during the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon in 2007. I was really nervous because there were hundreds of people and we had to jump off very quickly into the swirling Bay at a height of about 3 meters/9 feet. Once I was in I loved it though, the scenery, the buoyancy, even the salty taste of the water. I never did much sea swimming as a child so it was kind of a revelation to me.
Glorious: How do you prepare physically and mentally for a race?
Jaimie Monahan: For physical preparation I try to be as strong, limber, and well fuelled as possible. I like to train in the pool during the week and outdoors if possible at the weekend. I don’t do a ton of mileage but do find it important to incorporate weights, yoga, and high intensity interval training. Mentally I find it helpful to visualise the swim and know at this point if I hit a rough patch it will usually pass.
Glorious: You have broken several records including the first person to complete the Ice Sevens Challenge and in 2020 you completed the first ever non-stop solo Quadruple Manhattan Circumnavigation swim. Out of all your swims, which one are you most proud of and why?
Jaimie Monahan: I think I’ll always have a thrill of pride remembering the Manhattan Circumnavigation swim my team and I completed in the summer of 2020. Amidst a world shaken by COVID, we were able to do some beautiful local swims while being respectful of guidelines at the time. In just two months we were able to complete 18 swims around Manhattan Island (28 miles/45km each), including 7 in 7 days and the world’s first Quadruple Manhattan Circumnavigation swim, 183km/14 miles in 45 hours. In the face of adversity on a number of different dimensions, my team and I were able to not only get through a challenging time, but achieve something meaningful and unprecedented.
Glorious: What qualities do you possess that make you such an outstanding ice swimmer?
Jaimie Monahan: Mental toughness is key, but flexibility and the ability to relax and work with the water instead of against it has been helpful for me as well.
Glorious: Can you draw any parallels between work and open-water swimming?
Jaimie Monahan: I think planning and executing goals in swimming is quite similar to designing and implementing a work project. You start with a vision, then create a step-by-step plan, then tackle each part to reach the desired end result. Sometimes you need to reassess and recalibrate, so it’s important to be flexible and take feedback. And in corporate life, just like open water swimming, the team is everything.
Glorious: Tell us about the ice swimming scene in New York.
Jaimie Monahan: I think there has definitely been a growth of year-round open water swimming in the past few years. It seemed to begin when pools were shut indefinitely, which brought people out to the beach for their water fix. People started swimming through the winter and became almost fanatical about it. It does create a great feeling of wellbeing and seems to have many benefits for relaxation and mental health, like a liquid meditation practice. Ice swimming can be for any age group provided they start out slowly. The Coney Island Polar Bear Club has had members as young as six and in Eastern Europe it’s common to start children with cold water dips even as infants.
Glorious: What are your top tips for beginner ice swimmers?
Jaimie Monahan: Start slowly and build up very gradually. The best thing to do is start in the summer and swim as often as you can each week as the temperature gradually drops. Shorten time/distance in the water as it gets colder. Dry off quickly and get dressed before the shivering sets in. Never swim alone. Listen to your body and stop if anything feels off. Always get out five minutes before you think you need to.
Glorious: You have competed in swims all over the world, but which place is your favourite to swim and why?
Jaimie Monahan: I love anywhere I can swim with ice formations: Antarctica, Greenland, Iceland are some of my absolute favourite destinations. The water and air next to pure ice just feel so different to anywhere else. Being next to something so ancient and powerful is just magical.
Glorious: Have you encountered any scary moments or clashed with underwater wildlife?
Jaimie Monahan: Most of my encounters have been really positive, swimming with dolphins in Antarctica and turtles in New York and Barbados. However, I’ve been stung by jellyfish which is never nice. The worst was a swim in Egypt with hundreds of jellies with incredibly painful skin. It felt like being shocked with electricity flaying pieces of my skin off.
Glorious: When you’re not working or swimming, what other interests do you have? When on holiday, do you like to take a break away from water – it must feel strange to swim in a warm water swimming pool?!
Jaimie Monahan: Reading is my absolute favourite pastime, even more than swimming. Since getting a Kindle e-reader a few years ago I’ve been able to easily track my books and tend to read 200-300 books a year. In 2022, I set and exceeded a personal goal to average a book a day for the year. As much as I love to travel and see the world in real life, through books I can live a thousand lives and see places and times I would never be able to experience first-hand.
On holiday, even if I’m not in the water I do like to do something interesting. Outside of our swimming exploits, my partner and I have hiked Kilmanjaro, run with the bulls in Pamplona, run marathons including Antarctica and the Great Wall of China and even attended NASA Space Camp for adults. I love a warm swimming pool but it feels even better in contrast with a cool shower or cold plunge.
Glorious: What’s next for Jaimie? Is there a swim that you would love to take on?
I’d love to do some open water swims in my new home of Australia – something with views of the Sydney Opera House and the Harbour Bridge would be amazing.
Glorious: If you could choose four inspirational women to join you on a swim, who would they be and why?
Jaimie Monahan: I’ll choose a swimmer first, Australian swimmer Linda McGill – her story is just incredible, from competing in the Olympics and being unfairly banned from pool swimming, then taking that heartbreak as motivation to transition into marathon swimming and breaking the English Channel record in her first open water swim. After that she had a long career of doing some of the world’s most amazing swims, including 3 swims of Manhattan, Capri to Napoli, around Hong Kong Island and Saudi Arabia to Bahrain. Incredibly inspiring. We’d do head-up breaststroke or social kick so I could hear more about all her amazing adventures.
The performance artist Marina Abramović has such an incredible mix of vulnerability, strength and endurance. Her works have included durational installations like living on display in a gallery without eating or speaking for 12 days, hiking the full length of the Great Wall of China in 90 days, and putting herself fully at the mercy of her audience for a harrowing six hours, risking being shot, cut, and whipped. Her bravery is astounding. Reading about how she prepared for these performances and trains fellow artists in her method has so many parallels to endurance sport. I would love to swim with her, or just stand in the water for hours and hours while the tide comes in and out.
In late 2019 I started corresponding with one of my personal heroines, Lhakpa Sherpa, about a trekking and swimming expedition in Nepal. Lhakpa is a mountaineering guide and one of the world’s most impressive climbers, holding the female record for most Everest summits, all done without sponsorship or much fanfare. That trip never happened due to COVID, but I’ve enjoyed following her achievements, including another Everest summit in 2022 and preparations for K2 later this year. I hope in coming years I will be able to hike and swim with Lhakpa and her team, and maybe even convince them to take a dip with me.