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The Life-Threatening Experience that Made Me Love the Cold

Some folks manage to get ahead of the curve in the stock market, buying Apple or Amazon when they were like $3 a share. Me? I was ahead of the curve on cold water tempering.

In 2022, cold water therapy (also called cold water tempering) is all the rage. Instagram is full of athletes, biohackers, and regular Joes and Janes freezing their baguettes off in everything from ice water tubs to mountain springs. In 2002(ish) not so much. We had not even heard of Wim Hoff yet.

Through the late 90's and early 2000's, I worked as a personal trainer for New York Sports Clubs in Princeton, NJ. Mike Cruickshank (, was a colleague, one hell of a good trainer, and one of my best friends.

"Dude, I have to tell you about this craziness I found online last night," he gasped rushing down the stairs into the weight room. "I was searching for ways to strengthen the immune system...(Mike was always searching some random shit like this. It was usually to help out a client or a friend, but he wouldn't say that in the course of the conversation, making the topics seem all the more random)...and I came across this site with some lunatic in upstate New York. The guy had long hair and a dog, and was outside in the snow wearing nothing but shorts. He fills up two five-gallon buckets and slowly pours them over his head with his dog just sitting there watching. Apparently, it's some sort of ancient, Russian, health practice, or some shit like that!"

No stranger to Mike's impassioned tirades about random, and often bizarre topics, I typically didn't react much. I'd talk with him about these things, but rarely matching his level of intensity. This tirade, however, sparked a reaction. At first, it was like I was paralyzed - frozen in time (no pun intended). I was hearing Mike, but not really processing much. Then, my heart started racing and I felt a brief moment of some combination of vertigo and nausea.

Choosing to ignore this brief sensation, certainly not chalking it up to Mike's story about some dipshit in upstate New York, I went on with my day. That night, after work, I did go home and Google "cold water immune system," though. I found the site that got Mike all riled up as well as a few others that listed "cold water tempering" among other Russian health practices such as greeting every single person one encounters and drinking pickle juice to cure a hangover after a night swilling vodka. Again, I had this fucked up, physical reaction, but chose to ignore it. In truth, I had an inkling about why I reacted this way, but did not want to open Pandora's fucking Box.

A few days later, Mike walked into work and proclaimed, "I did it!!" "Did what?" I asked. "The cold water thing," he explained.

Motherfucker!!!!!! What an asshole. Mercifully, I had managed to forget all about that bullshit, but now, here it is, right in my face again. Swallowing this initial reaction, I asked, "So, how was it?"

"It was fucking awful," he explained. "I went outside my apartment in a pair of shorts, slowly poured one bucket of ice cold water over my head and just paced back and forth like this." With his back hunched over, and his shoulders way up high, Mike paced back and forth, shaking his hands, repeating, "Holy shit. Holy shit. Holy shit." "Then," he exclaimed, "I had to the second bucket. It sucked." Everything in me puckered.

Fuuuuuck!!! Mike did it, and now I had to do it, too. You see, in addition to friends and colleagues, Mike and I were also competitors. We had one of those friendly rivalries that kept us both really sharp. For example, I would attend some fitness or kinesiology seminar, and he would immediately need to learn what I now knew. Conversely, if he got some advance training credential, I would need to achieve it as well. It made us both really good at our jobs, but now I HAD TO do cold water tempering, and it terrified me.

When I was 12-years-old, my friend, Golan, and I were basically inseparable. His parents ran the apartment complex in which we lived, so we were also neighbors. There was a huge strip mall with a big assortment of stores and food establishments less than a mile away. Golan and I would cut through the woods adjacent to our apartment complex to get there in short time.

Those woods gradually turned into a construction site for more apartments, which did not deter us from cutting through at all. One day in mid-winter, Golan and I were hiking through ankle deep snow and ice on our way to the strip mall. Golan was a bit ahead of me as he ran up to throw a snowball at some piece of construction equipment. Suddenly, the ground disappeared and I was underwater.

I was sinking. The weight of my now saturated heavy, winter coat, sweater, boots, and jeans was driving me down like rocks in my pockets. Because I had no warning before the ice broke, I had not taken a deep breath and was running out of air. I swam to the bottom and pushed up with force. Shit, I came up somewhere different from where I fell and hit a ceiling of solid ice. No hole. I managed to follow rays of sunlight permeating the water in order to find the hole again. As I breached the surface, I gasped the most delicious breath of New Jersey air that I had ever tasted (those of you from the northern part of the Garden State will recognize this as a very big statement, indeed).

Desperate to get out of the freezing cold water, I tried to push myself up through the hole in the ice, but the compromised ice around the hole just broke, plunging me under again. I resurfaced and used by fists to break as much ice as I could while treading water, then swam until I hit ice again, used my fists to break the ice, swam, etc. until I could stand and walk out whatever the fuck it was into which I had fallen.

My relief at being out of the water was short lived. Instantly, I was colder than I ever imagined possible. The winter air against my wet clothing made me so much colder than I was when I was in the water. My forehead burned with cold and my ears, fingers and toes felt as though they had been fileted.

Golan and I headed back toward his apartment. My wet fucking jeans and coat were freezing in the winter air. With each step, I had to break the thin layer of ice that was forming on my clothing. We got back to Golan's apartment. His mother (who worked from home) took one look at me, covered her mouth in a silent gasp, and instructed me out of my clothes and into a warm bath. She washed and dried my clothes. Thank goodness for Golan's mom.

Over the next two decades or so, I grew into a physically and mentally strong, resilient, capable man who was terrified of cold water. If I was in the shower when the hot water ran out, it would send me into such a ridiculous panic, that I would often have to nap just to reset my nervous system.

So, there I was on the gym floor with my good buddy, Mike fucking Cruickshank, who just put in the position of having to either endure this cold water tempering, too, or lose.

Naturally, I went home that day and filled up two five gallon buckets of ice cold water and took them outside. No shit, I was quite literally quaking with fear. Forcing myself to breathe, I slowly and intentionally poured the first bucket over my head. Mike's description was bullshit. This was a layer of frozen hell previously unimagined. Still, I recovered and slowly, intentionally, poured the second bucket on myself.

I hated Mike for this. I hated everyone and everything. My entire nervous system was in alarm. I was hypervigilant, irritable, and withdrawn for days after this cold water experience. Unfortunately, I have a few rules by which I try to live. One is the ol' Mr. Miyagi, "It's okay to lose to opponent. Must not lose to fear!" I had been letting this fear exist and run rampant in my autonomic nervous system. Well fuck. Time exorcise this demon.

Three times a week (or more) I would head outside to douse myself in ice cold water until it no longer frightened me. Somewhere in the process of forcing myself to this several times a week, I forgot to track my fear levels each time. After two or three months, I realized that not only wasn't I afraid of cold water anymore, I really enjoyed it and looked forward to the next session. Since then I have made a regular practice of ice cold showers, ice baths, swimming in cold oceans and lakes, and the like.

It seems like I should be able to wrap this all up in a tidy little lesson, but I have no idea what the fucking lesson is. I suppose I owe Mike some gratitude. Without him, I might still be a cold water coward. Thanks, Mike.

For the record, I also recognized that there are specific methods for getting out of a hole in the ice once you've fallen through. Fat lot of fucking good it does me now. If I ever fall through ice again, I'll probably use it as opportunity to take a nice, cold swim.

Thank you for reading. Please feel free to comment. If you enjoyed this post, please subscribe and share it with your friends.

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Hmmm…do you suppose I can conquer grief if I jump in the cold ocean or swim a few laps in a cold pool? I don’t fear death. I fear the loss. I think a good douse in cold water will just make me, well, cold. Damn grief.

Jerry Novack
Jerry Novack
Jan 20, 2022
Replying to

Sorry you didn't get what you needed from reading this post. I appreciate you reading, though.


Corey Schwartz
Corey Schwartz
Jan 18, 2022

I clearly don't have any Russian blood in me and no love of the icy Santa Cruz ocean water on my California softening exterior! You took a fear and made it a strength on an unspoken dare and then even found a health benefit, nice work!

Jerry Novack
Jerry Novack
Jan 20, 2022
Replying to

Thanks for reading and for commenting. I love you.

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