Swimmer Bárbara Hernández Huerta officially holds a Guinness World Record by swimming one nautical mile in 15 minutes and three seconds between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans in the Antarctica Region south of her native Chile.
Hernández, nicknamed “Sirena de Hielo” (Ice Mermaid), is part of a small, yet growing number of ice swimmers. Without the warmth of a neoprene wetsuit, these swimmers participate in one of the most extreme adventure sports, dunking their bodies into waters as cold as 41 degrees Fahrenheit and sometimes colder.
Aside from breaking a world record, Hernández was also recently recognized by the Open Water Association for being the first person to swim three nautical miles between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
“There’s very few Latinas that do this sport, but we’re building the community,” Hernández told Latino Rebels.
Hernández is one of a handful of Latina swimmers in the chilling sport. There is no official number, but the International Ice Swimming Association lists a total of 3,748 members worldwide.
The World Open Water Swimming Association named Hernández one of the World’s 50 Most Adventurous Open Water Women in 2019. The list included women who “do extreme swims or pioneer unprecedented open water swims of note.”
Hernández was one of four Latinas on the list and the only one of the group who swims in icy waters.
Hernández began swimming when she was six years old, but she wouldn’t immerse herself in the freezing world of ice swimming for at least another two decades. Growing up, Hernandez wasn’t the best swimmer in her cohort, but her passion for the sport didn’t fade.
“I learned to swim, not for medals since I didn’t win any, but because I loved the sea, I loved being there, and I have always felt that it is my home. That is where I belong,” Hernández said.
On a chilly July day in 2014, over 50 swimmers from all over the world gathered before the Perito Moreno glacier for the first annual Argentina Winter Swimming Festival — Hernández was among them. She said she was the only one who hadn’t yet swam under icy conditions. She didn’t know what to expect, but she knew she needed to experience it.
“I entered the frozen water, and in the water I realized that I liked it, that I was good, that I was strong and fast. That is where I discovered the world of ice swimming,” Hernández recalled.
As she plunged into the frigid waters, across from a glacier towering 240 feet above the surface of the sea, Hernández began her career as a winter swimmer. Two years later, she traveled to Russia to compete in the Winter Swimming World Championships hosted by the International Winter Swimming Association. Hernández won the 450 and 200-meter freestyle swim.
Since then, she has participated in two more Winter Swimming World Championships and earned over 10 medals.
As she reflected on her career while speaking with Latino Rebels last Friday, Hernández said she couldn’t help but think of herself as a little girl.
“It’s like seeing eight-year-old Bárbara who would cry because she wasn’t fast, because she couldn’t buy herself a swimsuit, and telling her to hold on and persist because dreams do come true,” Hernandez said.
Chantal Vaca is a summer correspondent for Futuro Media based in New York City and a graduate of the Columbia University School of Journalism. Twitter: @VacaChantal