Have you ever stuck your hand into a bucket of cold water and kept it there, just to see how long you could? How long do you think you lasted – perhaps a few minutes? How about 47 minutes?
For the vast majority of us, keeping a body part submerged in icy water for this length of time sounds incredibly painful, if not simply impossible. For someone like Ontario Provincial Police Detective Sergeant Steve Coburn of the Forensic Interview Team, it sounded like a challenge. Except in his case, D/Sgt. Coburn committed to submerging his entire body into near freezing water for the better part of an hour as he undertook a pursuit few have accomplished before: swimming an ice mile.
The International Ice Swimming Association (IISA) recognizes the completion of an ice mile when a swimmer has swum a British mile (1,609.3 metres) in water with a temperature of 5 degrees Celsius or below, wearing only a standard issue bathing suit and swim cap. This extreme swimming feat is recognized as one of the most challenging swims a person can perform.
At the time of writing, there are 772 documented ice miles that have been completed by 526 swimmers. For some ice milers, the frigid swim has become a regular event. The very first ice miler on file, Ram Barkai of South Africa (also IISA President and Founder), swam 11 ice miles between 2009 and 2017. He held the record for most ice miles finished by any one swimmer until 2019, when he was surpassed by Ger Kennedy of Ireland. Ger completed his 14th ice mile earlier this year.
A few months later, D/Sgt. Coburn would complete his very first ice mile, making him the 10th Canadian (4th Canadian male and 519th person worldwide) to ever do so.
On the morning of April 19, 2023, at Jack Darling Memorial Park in Mississauga, D/Sgt. Coburn entered Lake Ontario and began swimming. Forty-seven minutes passed before he emerged, near hypothermic. To this day, he has no memory of the final strokes of his swim or how he managed to get out of the water.
What could possibly motivate someone to take on such a daunting challenge? For D/Sgt. Coburn, it was a cause close to his heart and home.
‘I’m a big believer that we need to feed people and help people. I think from a policing perspective, if you peel the onion back on any social justice issues that we face, nine times out of 10, food insecurity is there. So, my belief is that when we feed young kids and we educate and empower them, they don’t go down the wrong roads and make the wrong decisions. And that’s how we help tackle challenges faced by police, by making sure people are fed,’ he says.
Nine years ago, he founded Compass Run for Food, an annual fundraising run in Orangeville, with all proceeds being donated to local food security programs. At the start of 2023, they had raised $390,000 for food banks in Dufferin County and D/Sgt. Coburn was committed to hitting $500,000 by the end of their 10th year. With a donation goal of $10,000, completing the ice mile was his contribution to reaching that half-million-dollar marker. As of August 2023, Compass Run for Food has raised $467,000 for food programs in Dufferin County, with D/Sgt. Coburn’s ice mile yielding $9,505 of that total.
Although he had been swimming as a form of exercise for several years, D/Sgt. Coburn says he began seriously training for the ice mile approximately one year prior to completion. From that point on, the major focus of his training was cold water exposure and endurance. He slowly increased the amount of time he spent in icy cold water each day for nearly a year, first in the quarry where he swam regularly and then in a homemade ice tub in his garage.
In the days leading up to his trial swim (an IISA ice mile requirement), D/Sgt. Coburn was feeling positive. In a twist of fate, a heat wave rolled in and the water temperature in the quarry where D/Sgt. Coburn had intended to complete his ice mile began to rise. With the quarry out of the question, D/Sgt. Coburn’s team shifted gears and began making preparations for the trial and official ice mile to be performed in Lake Ontario instead.
A few days after the trial swim, temperatures dropped again, and plans were finalized with D/Sgt. Coburn’s team for him to perform the ice mile on the morning of April 19, 2023.
That morning, once he’d warmed up enough to realize he’d successfully completed the ice mile, D/Sgt. Coburn says he experienced a swimmer’s high. ‘You’re just so excited because you know what you’ve done, and you know that not a lot of people have actually accomplished that.’
Up next on D/Sgt. Coburn’s roster is the Mont-Tremblant half Ironman near the end of August. He and his wife recently completed the Sandusky (Ohio) half Ironman this past July, as well, and plan to take on the full Ironman in 2024. When asked about his motivation to continue tackling such extreme physical challenges, D/Sgt. Coburn referenced a quote given by US President John F. Kennedy: ‘We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.’
‘Even when you think things are going to be difficult, whatever your goal is you actually can accomplish it when you push yourself,’ says D/Sgt. Coburn.
If you would like to donate in support of D/Sgt. Coburn’s efforts, visit his fundraising page on Race Roster. Every pledge is donated directly to established food programs in Dufferin County, including food banks and school nutrition programs, through Compass Run for Food.