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Winter swimming keeps 95-year-old Finnish woman spry

Lilly Itkonen began a new hobby when she turned 75. She started regularly winter swimming in icy water in a bid to stay healthy and fit as long as possible. Twenty years later, her sight may have deteriorated, but the rest of her is going strong.

Nainen ui avannossa.
Lilly Itkonen swims in a hole in the ice twice weekly. Image: Minna Mustonen / Yle

The coast of the Palmahovi beach in Kokkola, western Finland may still be frozen, but local resident Lilly Itkonen is not deterred.  Twice a week she dons her black swimsuit and takes a dip in the frozen water. She is not able to travel to the location on her own any longer, but she praises her ’court taxi drivers’ for their good door-to-door service.

Itkonen’s vision has become blurred due to age-related damage to her retinas, so she recruits an assistant to help her into the water on her visits.

“I feel compelled to come here twice a week,” she says.  

While most of her fellow swimmers are much younger than Itkonen, the Kokkola winter swimming association head Kari Ås says the range of age in people who regularly swim in the frigid water is surprisingly wide.

“We’ve got Lilly here, who is over 90, and the youngest winter swimmer we have had visit this winter was just 7 years old. This is a hobby that could suit anyone, provided they don’t have any pre-existing conditions like blood pressure or heart problems,” says Ås.

Itkonen began winter swimming twenty years ago when her spouse fell ill. Her goal was to keep herself healthy so she could care for him. Her new activities became part of her lifestyle and she is still active today. In addition to her winter swimming twice a week, she also visits the gym once a week and goes for walks daily.

Itkonen is happy she has maintained her well-being and stayed physically fit. She credits her varied hobbies for her long and fulfilling life.

“One key factor is probably my winter swimming, but I also love music and play the piano.”

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