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Growing up in Austria, I was surrounded by snowy mountains and glassy lakes all year round. During the summers, I loved to go swim in the lakes while being surrounded by beautiful mountain scenery. When it got cold, I was always patiently waiting for the snow to start falling; I was fascinated by the ice crystals gently gliding through the air until finally landing on the cold ground. As a kid I would have never thought that there would be a time in my life where I would swim in one of these lakes in the middle of winter, with water temperatures just above freezing.
I have always been a curious person and, combined with my passion for visual storytelling, I found my love for documentary filmmaking. I love that I can help people tell their stories and spread their messages through the medium of film and be able to inspire others along the way.
In this case, the story is about Claudia Müller, Austria’s first iron ice woman and only the eighth in history. To become an Iron Ice Woman, or Man, you need to complete an Ironman Triathlon as well as an Ice Mile, a one-mile swim in water temperature of 5 degrees Celsius or below. Claudia did that in 2020, she won five gold medals at the winter swimming world championship in Lake Bled, Slovenia.
Her definition of cold is different than for most people. She enjoys the freedom of being able to swim whenever and wherever she wants whether the temperature is twenty degrees or two.
My encounter with Claudia was a coincidence. My friend Christina Grill (who was the on-land cinematographer and co-editor of the project) and I were in touch with a different ice swimmer, who left us hanging at the last minute. Through a friend of a friend I got the contact details of Claudia and only a couple of days before the shoot, I phoned her up to explain our idea. Luckily for Christina and I, she instantly agreed to film with us.
I had never seen somebody so unaffected by the cold and so excited to swim in freezing cold waters in just a bathing suit. Whilst Christina was filming the last scene on land, I got changed into my wetsuit. The wind on my bare skin and the cold stones underneath my feet gave me goosebumps. Looking over to Claudia, who had already changed into her bathing suit, gave me motivation. It seemed like she did not feel the cold at all.
I already knew how cold the water was, as I had done a 30-minute test shoot two weeks before. The cold didn’t scare me though and my excitement to shoot in the water was just as present as before. The shoot became a little bit more challenging when the zipper of my wetsuit, who was supposed to cover the length of my whole back, broke. With no time nor possibility to fix it, I finished preparing my camera for the water and jumped into the cold. I started feeling the icy liquid entering my wetsuit but it did not matter; I ignored the feeling and focused myself on the shots I wanted to get instead. Time was limited as the water temperature was just a bit above 2 degrees Celsius (35°F). If we wanted to be able to shoot Claudia swimming, we had to do it fast as too much time in the water could put her in danger. Which meant, no time to complain about my wetsuit.
After a couple of minutes, I had filmed everything I wanted so Claudia went outside to warm up. I stayed in the lake a bit longer to take pictures. It was such an exhilarating feeling to be in such cold water surrounded by snowy mountains, with no people around. The lake was clear and calm, and everything felt extremely peaceful, though I could not imagine swimming in here without a wetsuit. Claudia told me that for her, swimming in such cold water was making her feel free. Whether it was in the winter or in the summer, she was able to go for a swim whenever she felt like it, without having to think of the temperature. At first, swimming in the cold felt like a thousand needles poking her skin, but now it feels pleasant.
Claudia Müller’s journey showed me that if you really want something and believe that you can do it, even if it seems hard at first, you’ll succeed. All you have to do is believe in yourself and in the power of your mind.