WITH GRANT MCCARTNEY
ALASKAN ICE BATH
The Ultimate Polar Plunge
The greatest athletes are those who compete against themselves. They’re their own biggest rivals, and they don’t need to be pushed by others. Instead, these phenomenal competitors are motivated by their own self image, by their own mind, and by their own desire to achieve the seemingly impossible goals they set for themselves.
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A six-time American Ninja Warrior contestant, former pro skateboarder, and collegiate rugby star, Grant McCartney is used to pushing his body to places of indescribable difficulty. His mindset is simple: he’s always found comfort in extreme discomfort. Now, he’s gearing up to find out just how uncomfortable he’s willing to get: a literal Polar plunge and fully submerged swim underneath multiple feet of ice in northern Alaska.
Most athletes who attempt cold immersion submerge themselves up to their neckline for a couple of minutes, with the most intense ducking their head in at the end. A believer that more discomfort spurs greater development, this wasn’t enough for Grant.
“Anybody can get in cold water, but not everybody is willing to take the risk of a fully submerged freezing swim, which magnifies the risks exponentially, and could ultimately lead to severe hypothermia, cold shock, and even blindness.”
Instead of doing a standard ice bath in the gym, Grant wanted to do it in the sub-freezing Arctic air. Rather than dipping his head for a few seconds, he wanted to swim under the surface – and hold his breath – for minutes. And instead of getting in a tub, he wanted to submerge himself under a literal sheet of ice – by drilling over two feet through frozen ground.
Prolonged cold immersion is already dangerous, and Grant was taking it to the next level. Cold water drains body heat four times faster than cold air does, and the rapid release of heat from the body causes dramatic changes in breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure – all of which exponentially increase the risk of drowning, even for the most experienced swimmers. When hypothermia sets in, the risks become even more pronounced.
A longtime surfer and skilled swimmer, Grant was initially confident in his ability to thrive in the water – no matter how cold. However, his confidence was quickly tempered by his own experiences with prolonged cold immersion. He knew firsthand the feeling of his brain freezing and of losing both cognitive function and physical sensation, and he had experienced cold immersion gone wrong at home before.
“I’d gotten out after a series of submerged ice baths, and I wasn’t recovering. I wasn’t gaining motor function back, my jaw was locking up, my lips were blue, my back had turned purple, and my extremities were white. I was shaking uncontrollably, and while my brain was functioning, my body wasn’t. It was jarring.”
While Grant was able to recuperate with a warm shower immediately after one of his immersions gone wrong, he wouldn’t have that luxury in Alaska. The consequences were magnified. There was no easy out of the ice. There was no way to warm up if something went wrong. He could get lost under the water and not find his way back up.
Safety precautions were set up to ensure Grant was as safe as he could be. Red buoy markers lined the swimming route so that he wouldn’t veer off track. A string was attached to his waistline to pull him back to the opening in the ice if it was needed. A friend from Alaska was there to ensure his every move was tracked. But even these weren’t perfect solutions. There was still so much that could go wrong, and relatively little that could be done to course correct if the challenge went south.
There was only one question:
Could Grant harness years of physical training to accomplish something that is mentally tougher than anything he's done before?
Temperatures will approach negative digits. The water will be freezing. He’ll be swimming for minutes under the ice. Grant McCartney is risking his life for our next Feat of Strength – and for good reason.
Rather than prove that he’s fast or strong, Grant is using this Feat of Strength to prove something different – both to himself and those around him. He knows he’s physically capable, but he’s here to put his mental endurance to the test and lean into the comfort he derives from highly uncomfortable situations. Ultimately, Grant wants to test just how uncomfortable he can get while keeping it together.
“I know I’m capable of accomplishing a lot of physical feats, but there’s always someone who can do that same feat better or faster. That’s why I wanted to do something that plays into something I have that not everybody else has: the mental game.”
Grant is no stranger to discomfort. In recent years, he’s faced numerous traumatic experiences. He found his mother – who struggled with drug and alcohol abuse – attempting to take her life in their family home. While Grant found her in time, he proceeded to lose her, his two grandparents, his great-grandmother, and his step-father within a year and a half. It wasn’t easy.
“Finding my mom when she tried to commit suicide was probably the hardest thing I’ve faced,” he said. “I was just completely alone in it. I immediately took her to the hospital, and after they took her to the psych ward, I was just sitting alone in my car, trying to figure out what I can do with these thoughts and feelings.”
As he lost more of those close to him, these tough thoughts were only exacerbated. But while many people in Grant’s position would turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms or fail to recover at all in such a situation, Grant did the opposite. He leaned into the discomfort. He pushed himself to find solace and comfort in pain, using his ability to thrive in moments of uncertainty and discomfort as a method of self care. This is exactly why he sought to create the most uncomfortable Feat of Strength he could think of – to push his “discomfort is comfort” mentality to its logical limit.
“I have this desire to be comfortable in the uncomfortable. I’ve learned to be able to rest in pain, and I’ve realized – in the worst emotional moments of my life – that this is how we survive. We relax, reset, figure out what's going on, and figure out how to push on.”
Not only did Grant clearly know that he wanted his Feat of Strength to be as uncomfortable as possible, but he also knew exactly where he wanted to complete his challenge: in the water. Since his childhood, the water has been the one place where Grant is able to truly reset. As soon as he gets in and lets it wash over him, he enters an entirely new mindset – one that allows him to think deeply about the world around him.
“It brings me back to my childhood,” he said. We’d paddle out to the surf at the end of a hard day, and we would call it going to church. We'd all get out in the water, and we'd just talk and catch waves and figure life out.”
While Grant would do this in the temperate Hawaiian ocean instead of the freezing Alaskan wilderness when he was younger, he believes that the literal ice he will swim in is an ever better place to reset, to think, and to engage – especially when he’s overwhelmed.
“I’m always overthinking everything, and I find myself leaving the present to worry about the past or the future. Cold water changes that. It rushes over, and it forces you right back into the situation you're in. I love how that can happen, and I love being able to reset when I catch myself running away in my mind in those situations.”
That’s why Grant has literally thought of this Feat of Strength in every waking moment. He knows that he might be trapped under the water with no way out in real life, but he accepts the risk and knows that this is the ultimate way to show the importance in finding comfort in discomfort – both for himself and for those who face similar situations.
“Finding comfort in discomfort has been my saving grace through everything that I’ve gone through,” he explains. “I find myself often looking for advice and perspective, and I hope that my effort helps people who have gone through traumatic experiences discover their own ways of finding comfort in discomfort.”
When Grant first made the decision to complete an Alaskan Ice Bath and take a swim below multiple feet of solid ice, he wasn’t nervous. Because he was used to being in cold water, he was confident. As he kept digging deeper into exactly what he was preparing to do, though, it clicked for Grant: what he was doing could kill him.
If Grant was inadequately prepared and something went wrong, somebody would need to be able to pull a 200lb man through an ice hole with a piece of rope. That changed his mindset – and his preparation pivoted too. But did this change come too late?
“I already felt pretty confident that I could handle the mental strength it takes to get in this water, but hearing the risks, I realized that the main element that could go wrong is if physically something happens to me because I was unprepared.”
Following this realization, Grant now had to commit to ruthless physical preparation to get him ready, trusting that he was already ready to go mentally. He didn’t have much of a plan, though. He thought it was as simple as putting as much ice as could fit into a tub – up to 280 pounds of it – and just getting in, spending more and more time under the water until he was ready for Alaska.
This regimen became more structured as Grant began to understand the complexities of cold immersion. At a baseline level, his CrossFit workouts became longer and more technical to ensure his physical fitness; he devoted his focus to exercises that he knew would be useful when he was under the water in Alaska. More importantly, though, he focused on the ice baths. For the first few days, he would sit in the tub for five minutes without fully submerging – and he built from there. He then sat for five minutes, dunked under for ten seconds, and sat for another five minutes before leaving the tub, and kept increasing his time in the water as the date of the challenge approached. While Grant was able to keep increasing the time spent in the ice, though, he struggled to stay fully submerged for any longer – a miss that could prove fatal in Alaska under the ice.
“I had the breathing figured out, but It was the ice headache I couldn't figure out how to beat,” he explained.
He knew the ice headache could be the difference between success and failure, even life and death. Grant was only able stay under for ten seconds without his brain freezing. His goal was to stay under the water for minutes – and he couldn’t risk being halfway through his swim under the ice and then freezing up, losing all cognitive function and not being able to return to the hole.
“Being under the water made me feel like there was damage happening. Normally, if it's a mental thing, I'll push through. But these ice headaches were a physical thing, and I knew I better not go into the dark zone trying to do this.”
Grant was determined to find a way to beat the brain freeze. He researched, contacted everyone he knew, and even reached out to the godfather of cold immersion, Wim Hof, himself. In his research, he stumbled upon one particularly helpful suggestion: to buy a neoprene swim cap for when he went under the water. Immediately, he went from being able to spend ten seconds under the water to thirty seconds under the water.
“This was a game changer,” he said. “But it allowed me to get too confident.”
The intensely focused training he had done – numerous ice baths a day, gradually spending more and more time fully submerged – had prepared him well, or so he thought. However, on his last bath of the day – with his flight to Alaska the following morning – Grant stayed under for a minute and thirty seconds. He felt fine, got out of the tub, and did the body-warming techniques he normally completed after an ice bath: pushups, jumping jacks and squats. However, he wasn’t getting warmer.
“After 15 minutes, I wasn't gaining motor function back, my jaw was locking up, my lips were blue, my back had turned purple, and then my extremities turned white. I realized all the blood had gone to my organs to protect them, and I was starting to shake in a way that I couldn't control. I couldn't breathe. It was getting aggressive.”
With no control of his body, Grant was helped into a warm shower. While trying to recover, he was also trying to study what was happening to his body to make sure this wouldn't happen again. His ultimate conclusion reinforced exactly what he’d been thinking as he started preparing – and proved that two nights before the big day, he still had wood to chop.
“My brain was functioning, but my body wasn't,” he thought. “It was purely physical.”
For the first time, Grant was questioning himself. He knew he had the mental strength to strip down on the ice and take the plunge, but the physical effects seemed outside of his control. While recovering, he realized the luxuries he had during his preparation; so many people around, a hot shower only feet away, and a hospital just down the road. In Alaska, he wouldn’t have any of these.
Grant knew he was ready mentally, and through his cold water immersion training regimen, he’d worked hard to steel himself physically. However, that final ice bath proved no amount of training would guarantee success.
Was it all enough to get him through the Alaskan Ice Bath that was only a few days away? He’ll soon find out.
It was below freezing. They were in the middle of nowhere. It was just Grant, the team, and some tools. They had their plan of action laid out, and Grant was ready to go – but there was a lot to do before he could get in the water.
Grant and the team had laid out their plan numerous times before. Once they got to the ice, they were to cut two holes: one for Grant to enter from, and the other for him to exit out of. Grant was going to follow a rope to get from one hole to the other. However, problems quickly surfaced.
After spending two hours trying to cut through the ice, they hadn’t made a lot of progress – and had broken one of their chainsaws in the process. They were already 24 inches deep into the first hole, and it didn’t look like they were close to hitting the water yet. They were now already hours behind schedule. It was getting late – and it was only going to get colder as night came closer. That meant Grant didn’t have much time to get going.
It became clear that Plan A wasn’t an option. There was simply no time to cut another hole. That meant Grant would now have to enter the water, swim out, make a U-turn and come back to exit from the same hole he entered from. This was a much more complex – and dangerous – challenge than they had initially set out to accomplish, as Grant was sure to get lost under the ice.
“We all understood this was going to be much harder to figure out. Having to make a U-Turn under the ice meant that I was sure to lose my bearings. It felt like my nightmare was soon going to become a reality.”
It was a new plan, but the excitement was the same. Seeing the ice and being there in the moment, Grant was petrified – of being trapped, of losing control, and of drowning – but he was confident in his training and his ability to handle a curveball.
“We have our big pep talk, and we all get our minds right,” Grant says. “My buddy and I pray together, and we’re ready. I strip down to just the Set Short, and cool as a cucumber, get in and start the dive.”
We're doing this.
If the reality of what Grant was doing to himself hadn’t fully sunk in on the ice, it hit him as he got in. As his body touched the water, he immediately realized that the water under the ice was significantly colder than any of the ice baths Grant took in preparation. Given his physical reaction during those baths in the tub, Grant was scared he’d react even worse this time. The problem, he knew, was that any adverse reaction had far more dire consequences now.
After catching his breath, Grant submerged and swam away from the hole. A few strokes in, Grant realized he couldn’t see a thing. There was no difference between ice and water to him, and it was all a blur.
He decided he needed to check his surroundings to orient himself, as even though he hadn’t gone far, he had no idea where he was. As he tried to reach up for the ice, his hand missed it entirely. He had no idea how deep he was. Grant was disoriented and frozen in fear.
“I go out there ready to live my dream, and immediately, I’m in my nightmare. I had no idea where I was, didn’t know how to get back out, and I didn’t even know which way was up and which way was down at that point.”
Merely finding his way back wasn’t the only issue. He was fully submerged, and he knew he couldn’t hold his breath forever. He was on the clock, and he knew his limits. If he didn’t make it back in under a minute and thirty seconds, his body would shut down – just like it did in that final ice bath he had done in preparation for today.
Grant was panicking. He felt trapped. His mind was moving in a million directions. Plus, he was wasting energy. He was cognizant that this panicking was only wasting more of the little remaining energy that was keeping his body warm – but it was the natural response.
Realizing that his fear was making his time under the water more perilous, Grant tried to take a second to regroup. He had put himself into an uncomfortable situation, and he was going to get himself out of it. He thought about the consequences of what would happen if he didn’t regroup soon, and something clicked.
Grant went into “Operation Mode.” He still could not even see the rope connecting him to the Eskimo Ninja on the surface, so he knew he was on his own. He thought about the direction he swam and remembered that he had put bright red markers inside the hole. It was foggy in the lake, but he was determined to find his way out. He needed to.
After ten seconds of uncertainty – which felt like ten minutes – Grant regained awareness and caught a glimpse of the red markers. Knowing where he needed to go and realizing that he was safe, he began to slow down, taking his time to cherish this moment of living his dream looking up at the thick sheet of ice above him.
After returning to the hole, Grant came up and went straight to the blazing fire they made directly on the ice. It was a reward for what he had just aced: the ultimate polar plunge. He’d leaned into the ultimate embodiment of finding comfort in discomfort, stared a harrowing situation in the face, and came out stronger on the other side.
“I don't have room for fear, I don't let it live in me very often. Anytime I recognize it, I throw it out, just like I did here. I hope I continue to do that until I die.”