Deep Freezing With ice water in her veins, famed ultraswimmer Lynne Cox took the plunge near Antarctica

Feb. 17, 2003
Feb. 17, 2003

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Feb. 17, 2003

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Deep Freezing With ice water in her veins, famed ultraswimmer Lynne Cox took the plunge near Antarctica

Lynne Cox has crossed a lot of inhospitable seas in her 31-year
career as a pioneering cold-water swimmer, but when she plunged
into the 32° water around the Antarctic Peninsula for two
historic swims in mid-December, she was delving into largely
uncharted waters. "There are few charts with tide or current
information because the conditions are so variable that nobody's
been able to see a pattern," says Cox. "That makes it hard to
judge how fast the icebergs are coming at you."

This is an article from the Feb. 17, 2003 issue

More important, she had no idea what such cold water would do to
her body. In numerous lab experiments and in record-breaking
swims across the English Channel and groundbreaking traverses of
the 44° Strait of Magellan and the 38° Bering Strait, the 5'6",
180-pound Cox had proved herself to be unusually well suited to
cold-water swimming. Her core body temperature rarely drops, even
after long exposure to cold water, a phenomenon that hypothermia
experts have ascribed to genetics, training, acclimation, good
natural insulation and, says Dr. Robert Schoene, a pulmonary
specialist at the University of Washington, "the perfect body
habitus for this kind of thing."

But no one had voluntarily swum any appreciable distance in
near-freezing water. About 10 years ago, in fact, Cox had
participated in an experiment in which she had to keep her hand
in 32° water for half an hour. That left her with nerve damage
that took three months to heal. "Having done that, I realized
what could happen to my body," she says.

The recommended survival strategy if you find yourself in
extremely cold water is to curl up in a ball to expose as little
body surface area to the heat-sapping water as possible. Cox's
strategy was to swim as fast as she could. To accomplish that she
accelerated the pace of her workouts in the chilling waters of
her backyard pool and the nearby Pacific. She also began a
rigorous strength-training program under the direction of
professional trainer Jonathan Moch (see box), a onetime college
wrestler who in one year helped the 46-year-old Cox double her
strength. Some of her workouts, in fact, better resembled those
of a wrestler than a swimmer. "Wrestling is all about keeping
your head up, and I wanted to keep my head up on my swim as long
as possible, because you lose 80 percent of your body heat
through your head," she says.

After two years of training, research and fund-raising, Cox went
to Argentina on Nov. 30 and spent a week training in the 40°
water. She then headed for the coast of Antarctica by ship. She
stood on a platform before the first of two swims wearing nothing
but a swimsuit, cap and goggles. After her lunge into the
brutally cold 33° water, she overcame a choking panic and
near-hyperventilation to swim for 22 minutes. "I was so focused
on propelling myself forward, I couldn't even say how painful the
water was," she says. Two days later, in water a degree colder,
she covered 1.22 miles in 25 minutes, a triumph of will.

Why the Antarctic? "I wanted to do something extraordinary," says
Cox, who is completing a memoir of her swims, which will be
published next spring. "To do it, I had to draw on everything I
had ever known and everything didn't. It was like going to
Mars." --Kelli Anderson

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: GABRIELLA MIOTTO (2) THE COLD FACTS In her second swim, in 32° water, Cox went 1.22miles in 25 minutes.