From the Arctic to the Caribbean within hours

Anne Marie Ward, World Winter Swimming Chmpionships 2014, Gold M
WITHIN hours of winning gold at the Winter World Swimming Championships in Finland last month, Anne Marie Ward was on her way to Fort Lauderdale to join a two-week Caribbean cruise.

Anne Marie, who works as a Disability Manager with the HSE in Letterkenny, has been enlisted as part of the ‘Beyond the Podium’ speaker series to talk about her remarkable story.
Although she only began swimming in open water seriously about a decade ago, her achievements have been the stuff of dreams.

As a teenager she was very ill with meningococcal meningitis and after this gave up all her swimming dreams that is until 2002, when she was nearly 36, Anne Marie and two colleagues swam a two miles sea swim to benefit the Share a Dream foundation.
Since then she has gone on to swim from many of the islands off the Donegal coast, including Tory Island.
Last month she travelled to Lapland, Finland to take part in the Winter World Swimming Championships.

This event which is held every two years is the Olympics for winter swimmers all over the world. This year’s event attracted over 1,200 competitors from 32 countries.
The first day of competition was dedicated to the tough endurance event. This involves swimming 450 meters in 0 degree icy water. The 9 lane 25 metre pool was cut out of a frozen river.

Speaking to the Donegal News this week Anne Marie explained that, to qualify for participation in this event, swimmers have to have a proven record of having swam this distance in similar conditions and within a specific timeframe. There are risks associated with swimming the 18 lengths required in this event and therefore entry criteria is very strict.
Indeed, a Russian swimmer suffered a heart-attack and died less than 90 minutes before Anne Marie took to the icy waters.

“That was certainly a shock to us all. The organisers thought about cancelling the event and I must admit it was difficult getting into the water so soon after that tragedy,” she said.
Anne Marie Ward went on to win her endurance race and took home Ireland’s only gold medal from the competition.

“This was my first Worlds and I’m already looking forward to the next one in Russia in two years time,” she said.
Last year she participated in the Winter Swimming Championships in Russia and won a silver and bronze medal in Murmansk, inside the Arctic Circle.

“We’ll see how the body is in two years time but it’s certainly something that’s on the radar,” she said.
Reflecting back on last month’s finals, Anne Marie explained that the ‘pool’ was cut out of a frozen river.

“They measure is out on the ice and then take chain saws to cut through the ice. They then place a wooden frame around the pool with steps going down into the water, a timing board and all the rest. The one thing not allowed is a diving start due to the cold temperature of the water. It’s what they call a wet start whereby you climb down into the pool. The 450 metre event is the ultimate in terms of endurance,” she explained.

All races are run in heats with the best overall time taking gold and Anne Marie’s time of 10 minutes 48 seconds was almost a minute quicker than her closest rival – a Russian swimmer.
“I’ve spent the past two years building up to this race and I was delighted to come home with the gold medal. There were competitors there from places like Argentina, Chile and Australia,” she said.

Working as a full-time HSE employee means that Anne Marie has to fit such events into her holiday schedule and, as a result, she only landed in Lapland the day before her event and had to leave again before the medal ceremony.
“I had another commitment – in the Caribbean,” she laughed.
Indeed, it would be a few days into the cruise before Anne Marie got the feeling back in her finger-tips.

“I flew from Helsinki to Copenhagen and then on to Fort Lauderdale to join the Caribbean cruise for two weeks,” she said.
“I have been invited to become a speaker as part of the ‘Beyond the Podium’ series at which I talk about my various swimming adventures. I talk about swimming all round Ireland and, of course, Donegal,” she said.

“As a full-time worker I’m restricted in what I can do – time wise – but I enjoyed the experience. It’s nice to be able to bring my swimming exploits to an international audience,” she said.
Anne Marie Ward was born in Portnablagh and now lives in nearby Ards, Creeslough, and she was back in the ‘warm’ waters near her home on Wednesday morning for her daily swim before she starts work.

So what does the summer of 2014 hold?
“I’ll stay local this year and do a few swims around the Donegal coast. I haven’t quite decided what yet – we’ll see how the training goes and take it from there,” she said.

Anne Marie Ward with USA team friends Darren Miller and Melissa Mo O'Reilly.

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