1676891086 From Siberia to Antarctica the Chilean swimmer who breaks through

From Siberia to Antarctica: the Chilean swimmer who breaks through crystal clear seas

They call her the ice mermaid and although ice water swimmer Bárbara Hernández (Santiago de Chile, 37 years old) has already taken her to her heart, she would have preferred something like Tonina – the largest dolphin in the world. “Why can they be sharks and I’m a mermaid?” he asks this Saturday after a morning training session in the pools of one of his sponsors, the Universidad Católica Sports Club in the east sector of Santiago. It was difficult to arrange the meeting. The athlete has barely set foot on mainland Chile so far this year. He competed in the Cold Water World Championships in France in 2023, where he won seven medals. He then embarked on a trip to Antarctica, where he became the first human to swim 2.5 kilometers, and this Sunday he flies to New Zealand to cross the Cook Strait, a journey of about 27 kilometers. If he did, he would only need one location to complete the Seven Oceans Challenge.

Bárbara Hernández trains in the swimming pool of the Universidad Católica Sports Club.Bárbara Hernández trains in the swimming pool of the Universidad Católica Sports Club. Cristian Soto Quiroz

For two hours, Hernandez swims from one end of the pool to the other at a precise pace. Gabriel Torres, his trainer since he was nine, yells the mark at him every time he completes a kilometer loop. The 77-year-old clarifies that it is gentle exercise for him to recover from the 20-day trip to the far south. It is usually four hours from Monday to Saturday. “After [región] Antarctica, that looks like Cancun to me,” Bárbara jokes as she tilts her head toward the sun to get rid of the remnants of a cold that still seems to be crawling in her bones. On February 6, he swam in a bathing suit for 45 minutes and 30 seconds in Antarctic waters at 2 degrees to call for the conservation of the ecosystem in the planet’s far south.

After completing the feat, Barbara’s body temperature was 27 degrees. “The hypothermia was severe, she was no longer shaking. When I got out of the water I was halfway gone. It was super hard for my team, but I was happy, my job was done and I knew they would take care of me,” she says, still excited. The 60 sailors from the Chilean Navy tugboat Janequeo (ATF-65) received her with the song Gonna Fly Now from the Rocky movie, and special hypothermic toilets provided the needed help.”It was a very controlled recovery. I don’t have any bad memories,” he says. This morning he received confirmation of his Guinness Record for the Sleight of hand.

The athlete grew up in a simple house in the municipality of Recoleta, where a walk by the sea was something out of the ordinary. “Swimming has been a privilege for me and I think that’s why I love it so much,” he says. His first memories are playing in the waves with his father on cold, gray beaches. “No one likes them, but I remember them with a lot of love because I got out of the water and my mom was waiting for me with hot chocolate.” His immediate fascination with water prompted his parents, at great expense, to take swimming lessons at the University of to pay Chile. Gabriel remembers that she wasn’t the best, but that her persistence made her stand out from the rest. “Swimming is 80% mental and 20% physical,” he says from the poolside.

Bárbara Hernández with her coach Gabriel Torres Galaz.Bárbara Hernández with her coach Gabriel Torres Galaz. Cristian Soto Quiroz

At the age of 17, Bárbara competed in open water for the first time in the Corral-Niebla section in the southern city of Valdivia, becoming the first woman to win. “After having a crying adolescence because I was competing in the pool and feeling down and not being a champion despite everything I’ve trained, I found something I’m good at,” she says. This competition allowed something the athlete wanted and couldn’t find in other places: swimming in a bathing suit rather than a wetsuit, which is mandatory in other tournaments for safety reasons.

“It’s my way of connecting with nature. I’m more of a purist, but man has to adapt. Do not intervene as much as possible, so as not to freeze, feel pain or fear. The ultimate goal is to give a place to all these states and to see that they are no bigger than my fire, which is my heart, or the love of the people who are close to me,” explains the athlete and psychologist by profession .

In 2014 she was invited to swim in the Perito Moreno Glacier in Argentine Patagonia at five degrees and without neoprene. He only told his inner circle that he was venturing into the frigid waters. “I didn’t want them to tell me I couldn’t do it, which is very Chilean,” he says. “I was scared, I was super nervous, I had never seen so much snow in my life, I had never seen a glacier, I didn’t even know you could swim there…” she says. Again he won. Since then it has twice become number one in the ranking of ice waters. And he’s traveled the world breaking records.

She was the first Chilean to swim the English Channel, a feat that took her more than 12 hours. He won 10 medals – three gold medals – at the 2019 World Cold Water Swimming Championships in Siberia and the following year became the first person to cross Lake Chungará, located 4,560 meters above sea level in northern Chile. In 2021, she became the first Hispanic woman to swim two laps around Manhattan Island, covering 94 kilometers in 20 hours and 30 minutes. The range of successes is increasing from year to year. Where does he get his strength from? “I swim with my emotions,” he replies, “so when a big swim ends you feel like you’ve lost something, a part of you stays in that place and you have to fight a mini duel,” he adds added.

Bárbara Hernández during an interview with EL PAÍS. Bárbara Hernández during an interview with EL PAÍS. Cristian Soto Quiroz

Up until two years ago, he ran raffles to raise money that allowed him to attend the big events, which can cost $6,000 just To. He works freehand to obtain sponsorships. The most important come from the Chilean magnate Andrónico Luksic Foundation, the Bank of Chile and the Ministry of Sports. But raising funds for a competition in a non-traditional sport isn’t easy, which is why the swimmer’s favorite moment is in the water: “Then I can give everything, focus on my stroke, how I breathe, where I’m going, where from I take strength, what do I do with the fear, that’s mine”.

Until March 4th, Barbara will be in New Zealand to attempt to cross the Cook Channel. What do you think about during 15 hours of swimming? “Just as the price for swimming is paid beforehand, the mind is trained for such a marathon. You have to work on the inner dialogue beforehand. Of course it scares me because I care and I care because I’ve waited five years for this opportunity, but if it doesn’t come, nothing happens. I will cry for a while and come back in 10 years.” Whatever happens, in July she will try her luck in the Tsugaru Channel, Japan and the Tonina will continue to advance to add a new achievement: she is the first South American to completes the route called Seven Oceans, which includes the Channels of Moloka’i (Hawaii), Catalina (California), La Mancha (England and France), North (Scotland), Tsugaru and the Strait of Gibraltar (Spain and Morocco) and Cook.

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