It’s almost impossible not to sound hyperbolic when describing open-water swimmer Lynne Cox’s records. At age fourteen, Cox completed her first big swim — the twenty-seven-mile expanse of the Catalina Channel. In 1972 she traversed the English Channel, breaking both the women’s and men’s world records. One year later, she returned to the channel, this time beating the then-current record time by an astonishing twenty-one minutes. Then, in 1975, Cox undertook a swim that would change the course of her life. She attempted to become the first woman to swim across the Cook Strait — the tumultuous water between the North and South Islands of New Zealand.
Cook Strait is known as a dangerous waterway with strong currents, freakishly long tides and hypothermia-inducing water temperatures. Fewer than sixty people have successfully completed the grueling swim. For Cox, the feat was even more difficult than she anticipated, lasting more than twelve-hours in less-than-hospitable conditions. But due in large part to the ardent support she received from the New Zealand themselves — including the Prime Minister — Lynne Cox became the fourth person and first woman to cross the strait. She was eighteen and still in high school at the time.
In the years following the Cook Strait swim, Cox set record after record in some of the globe’s most hostile and infamous waters: the frigid 42-degree waters of the Strait of Magellan (1976), the shark-riddled waters of the Cape of Good Hope (1977), the war-torn Gulf of Aqaba (1994) and the unimaginably icy waters of the Antarctic (2002). Her most famous swim, though, was the one she undertook in 1987 during the waning years of the Cold War. After more than a decade of negotiations between the Soviet Union and the United States, Cox was granted permission to swim the Bering Strait. She did it in two hours and six minutes — in nothing but a swimsuit, cap and goggles — a feat that helped thaw relations between Regan and Gorbachev (Gorbachev famously toasted her during the signing of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Force Treaty).
In honor of the twenty-fifth anniversary of Lynne Cox’s Bering Strait swim, contributing editor Rebecca Thomas spoke with the swimmer, writer and motivational speaker about her experiences in and out of the water.
Rebecca Thomas: I just have to tell you how excited I am to talk to you! I was almost freezing just reading some of your stories! It seems like from the beginning you knew you were going to be a swimmer. Did you ever entertain any other goals or career paths?
Lynne Cox: Actually, for a while I played volleyball, and got pretty good at it. I also played piano but realized it took too much effort to practice (laughs). I had to choose at one point. So I decided it was better to do something I could be good at versus something I had to struggle to be good at (laughs). The thing is, swimming was always a family sport. Being in the water was something that we all did together. Some of the richest times of my childhood were in water.
RT: There’s nothing like being in the water. I assume everyone thinks that, but I guess not.
LC: No! I really do think that there are water people and land people. When you meet water people, you know who they are. They all sort of gush about how beautiful the lake or the ocean is, or what it’s looking like now or how it’s moving or how it would feel to be in it or on it and going through it. It’s really funny (laughs).
RT: You also knew from a very young age that you wanted to be a writer too, right?
LC: Yes. I knew when I was like eight or nine that I wanted to write. I loved that when you opened a book you really did open a different world. I was an avid reader at the time, but I think that goes along with being a swimmer. I think most swimmers are pretty intelligent and very thoughtful people because we choose to escape from the rest of the world and be in this area where we have a lot of time to think. But you don’t want to be bored! So I read a lot as a kid and imagined a lot [in the water]. I still imagine a lot. That swimming time becomes a time when I contemplate.
RT: Speaking of the literary — a lot of your swims have been very obvious metaphors. You’re swimming from one place to another, making a very clear metaphorical bridge. It’s almost like performance art. When did you become interested in swimming as a means of bringing people together and using your body as a literal bridge?
LC: I think it really occurred me when I swam Cook Strait. That was such a tough one! I was the first woman. There were three men [at that point] but no woman had ever made it. And I went backwards for five hours at one point. So there was this realization that this swim is gonna take longer than I thought (laughs). But there were people from all over the country — all different ages — calling in to the support base by radio or calling the local radio station and following my swim. They were relaying messages and basically saying, “You have people from Christchurch and Wellington and Auckland and all over Milford Sound [here and] we think you can make it! Keep going!” At one point Prime Minister Rolling called! This was after the wind picked up to 45 knots and New Zealand had changed the course of air crafts to monitor our progress from above. That was pretty amazing! Suddenly I realized that the only way I was gonna make it across was by listening to these people who were encouraging me, whom I’d never met in my life, whom I may never meet in my life. And that helped me, enormously. Those people cared! That really inspired me and kept me going.
So to realize that I had this huge outpouring of support from an entire nation as just a swimmer, trying to do this feat was really eye-opening. When I came back from that experience and went back to high school, I was trying to figure out what I do with my life. My dad said, “Why don’t you think about swimming from the United States to the Soviet Union through the Bering Strait. It’s only 2.7 miles apart and you would be showing people that the United States and Soviet Union are only a short distance away from one another! Maybe you could show that we’re neighbors!” The next thought that I had was maybe we could show that there’s a way to become friends!
RT: Right. And incredibly, you did just that.
LC: It took eleven years to convince Gorbachev and the Secretary of State and reach that level where they both took me seriously. [The swim] occurred at a time when Gorbachev was expounding on Glasnost.* It took a lot to do — to swim in thirty-eight-degree water and make it from the United States to the Soviet Union. But I also had support from others. People think these swims are just you out on your own. But you have to have a support crew for safety, and to just be with you and mentally help you get to the other side. I owe them a lot. There are elements in doing these long swims that are a lot like mountain climbing and exploration. [We’re] going into a wild environment.
RT: You just wrote a book about the explorer Ronald Amundsen [the first person to reach both the North and South poles]. When you’re writing about polar exploration, how much does your own knowledge being in deep cold seeps into your writing?
LC: I think it was really incredibly helpful to have my background. So Amundsen, he was the first person to go through the Northwest passage. For 400 years men had tried. None them succeeded. But he did. And to realize that we could sail from the Atlantic into the Pacific was enormous. It changed the way everything was done. As a long-distance endurance swimmer who swims in extremely cold water I’ve studied the effects of cold on the body. I really understood how cold it was for Amundsen and how much it took to prepare and what it took to get the support.
RT: There are so many amazing record-breaking swims in your history, but do you have any swims that stand out for you? Maybe not ones that were “firsts” or famous but that meant something big to you?
LC: You know, I think one of the most moving swims I ever did was between East and West Berlin, which I did two months after the Berlin wall came down (I’d started planning it before it fell). I had to work closely with the former East German police because they knew where I couldn’t swim because of mines and razor or barbed wire in the water. But the thing that really got me was these thirteen crosses I saw as I swam past these apartment buildings on the East Berlin side. There was barbed wire and the buildings were cemented in so there was no way someone could go from the east to the west. But people had tried. They leap from the windows or from the mainland. And they had been shot and killed. The crosses on the West Berlin side marked the lives of these people who tried to swim across. It was just amazing that those people died trying to swim to freedom and now I was able to swim freely between the two zones, with support from both sides. Relations were opening and families could see each other again that had not seen each other for years. It was huge.
Also, when I did the Antarctica swim, penguins came to the shores, sliding from the tops of the glaciers and jumping in the water. That was one of those moments where you’re just like, I can’t believe this! That was astonishing. But I think that each of the swims is so unique. You just don’t know who’s gonna appear or what their stories are, and you just think, “This is extraordinary!”
RT: Those are amazing stories! Largely it seems you’ve been able to do everything you’ve set out to do. Have you had any failures?
LC: I haven’t always succeeded, and I think that’s been really important. For example, I attempted to swim the Nile in Egypt. I got sick, before I even swam I had to exit the water. My big lesson was there are limits and sometimes it’s just not worth it, whatever it is. Sometimes the water’s too dirty or it’s just not good to swim today and you need to get out. And you have to know that if you do get out, you’ll be okay. You’ll survive the failure.
So many people have decided they want to take on bigger challenges, which is great. They want to do triathlons. They want to do swims. They want to surf big waves. But they don’t understand the years of preparation it takes. They just want to do it now. And it’s making me a little crazy because I keep seeing people who you’d think would know that they need to really prepare and train and take it seriously and then suddenly they’re getting hurt. It’s like, what are you doing?
RT: In cases like that, I think it takes more strength of character to step back from something you want so badly. To me the person that can say “Now’s not the time” is a lot stronger than the person throwing themselves into something blindly. It takes a lot more courage to let yourself fail.
LC: That’s so poignant because that was the exact same way [Ernest] Shackleton was. Shackleton got within 96 miles of the [South] Pole and said, “Look: we’ve been hauling equipment ourselves, we’re exhausted, we’re freezing cold, we’re running out of food and we’re just not gonna make it. We gotta turn around.” And that’s brilliant! Because Amundsen could look at how much Shackleton had accomplished and go “Okay, this is what I can do. With proper research, planning, training, a stronger team of men and well-trained sled dogs, we can be the first to reach the South Pole.”
In everything, there’s this whole group of people who go before you that forge trails, who have this wisdom. Then they pass it on to somebody else. If you’re smart, you try to find what was passed down and figure out what can you learn from that. Only then can you ask, “How can I use it to go further myself?”
*Glasnost was a policy introduced by Gorbachev in the late 80s that called for more openness and transparency from the Soviet government.
This story originally appeared in WAX Issue #1.