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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Icy Walrus Club Meets Its Match

KUSTANAI, Kazakhstan -- As yet another harsh winter approaches the forested steppe surrounding this city of 250,000, most inhabitants are breaking out the furs and sealing their apartment windows.


But Ivan Zhurkovsky, a 70-year-old local hero, is preparing himself for winter in an entirely different way. He's taking more cold showers in anticipation of the day when it will be close enough to freezing for him to go swimming in a local ice hole clad in nothing but his skimpy bathing suit.


This is Kustanai's high season for Zhurkovsky, who is listed in Russia's book of records for his feats of cold-water swimming. Once the mercury falls below zero degrees Celsius and the ground is covered in snow, Zhurkovsky is ready to begin his daily regimen of running three kilometers to the icebound Tobol River, finding a gap in the ice, swimming for up to 15 minutes and then running back home -- often in a state of near nudity.


Although Zhurkovsky, a former professor of geology, is a celebrity mentioned frequently in local newspapers and television broadcasts, not everyone knows what he is up to, and reactions to him are not always enthusiastic. Some seven years ago, a militiaman arrested an ill-clad Zhurkovsky during a mid-winter run along the city's streets, thinking him drunk. The winter before that, Zhurkovsky said, an ambulance was dispatched from the city's psychiatric clinic to determine whether the jogging Zhurkovsky was insane.


Zhurkovsky said he has had no problems quickly settling such run-ins with the local authorities because, as Kadyrbek Uspanov, head of the regional committee on tourism, physical education and youth affairs, said in a respectful tone, "Everyone in Kustanai has heard about Zhurkovsky and knows who he is."


When Zhurkovsky began his cold-weather regimen some 15 years ago, it wasn't with an eye to breaking new records or garnering publicity. He was simply trying to reverse his declining health.


"Having worked a lot, I started feeling worse and often had dizziness. The doctors said that I was getting old and prescribed me all kinds of pills and medicines and a lot of rest. I chose a different way to stay healthy and cheerful -- and that's winter swimming," he said. "It's not a sport for me. It's a way of life that keeps me fit. Since I started doing this, I've never caught the slightest cold."


Eventually, in 1995, his efforts at self-improvement landed him in "Divo," Russia's cousin to the "Guinness Book of World Records," where he is listed as having swum in 26 reservoirs of 25 cities over a one-year period in air temperatures ranging from 12 C to minus 30 C. The entry goes on to list Zhurkovsky's feat of swimming a total distance of 10 kilometers in water just above freezing over a period of 7 hours, 40 minutes, 33 seconds.


During the 1995 tour, Zhurkovsky said he was welcomed at every icy swimming hole by curious onlookers and those who came not only to witness his swimming program but also to hear his rendition of nostalgic songs from the Great Patriotic War.


"When I did my mini-show in Ulan Ude, it was minus 25 C," he said, recalling one particularly poignant musical performance. "As people were crying, their tears froze."


To prolong each year's window of cold weather swimming, Zhurkovsky sometimes travels far afield in search of frigid water. Last month, for example, he headed to the Solovetskiye Ostrova, an archipelago in the White Sea, for a swim that was part of a political event designed to draw attention to an area made infamous as a site of Stalinist camps. With local inhabitants, pilgrims and monks watching, Zhurkovsky said he swam and then gave a talk about those who suffered in the gulag.


"You see," said Zhurkovsky, whose monthly pension does not exceed $20, "even an old man can do real things that are of some importance to other people."