SWIMMING TO ANTARCTICA: Tales of a Long-Distance Swimmer
by Lynne Cox
(Knopf, 336 pages, $24.95)
This is an article from the March 15, 2004 issue
If you're wondering what kind of person would leap into 32° water
a mile off the coast of Antarctica wearing only a bathing suit,
cap and goggles, Lynne Cox provides a riveting answer. From her
story you realize that the title swim was the only thing that
would make her happy--the culmination of a lifetime of
confronting self-imposed challenges. More than the story of the
greatest open-water swimmer, Swimming to Antarctica is a portrait
of rare and relentless drive.
In 1969, when Cox was 12, her family moved from New Hampshire to
Long Beach, Calif., partly to be closer to the best swimming
programs. There she met U.S. Olympic coach Don Gambril, who
steered her toward open-water competitions because of the lack of
Olympic distance races for women at the time. By age 15 Cox had
swum the English Channel in less than 10 hours, a record at the
time. She had, she says, "reached my highest goal."
Cox's subsequent career has been a continuing effort to top
herself, to find ever more remote, treacherous passages to cross.
In 1975 she became the first woman to swim Cook Strait, the
15-mile channel separating New Zealand's North and South islands,
where she battled eight-foot seas with the help of a pod of
dolphins that guided her through vicious rip currents. After that
came the Strait of Magellan, Glacier Bay in Alaska and the Cape
of Good Hope--passages that ultimately led to the swim that made
her famous worldwide: across the Bering Strait from Alaska to
Siberia. That challenge was political as well as physical. For
more than a decade Cox lobbied U.S. and Soviet diplomats before
receiving permission, in 1987, to claw her way through nearly
three miles of 38° water between the U.S. island of Little
Diomede and the Soviet Union's Big Diomede.
The warmth with which she was greeted by the Soviets, coupled
with her newfound celebrity, persuaded her to turn her swims into
what she calls "bridges between borders." She swam Lake Titicaca
between Peru and Bolivia; the Spree River, dividing East and West
Berlin; and the Gulf of Aqaba from Egypt to Israel to Jordan.
Finally, on a pleasure swim of the lakes of Italy,
dissatisfaction set in. Cox realized she needed another great
mission. "There was nothing challenging about these swims--no
political complexities or intrigue, and no physical barriers....
I wanted to do so much more." Imagine splashing around Lake Como
and thinking how much more fun it'd be to be in Antarctica.
Cox's understated style makes for gripping reading, no more so
than when she recounts the title swim. Steeling herself to plunge
into the iceberg-choked waters off Antarctica, she says, "This
was the hardest part, the first step.... The wind was blowing at
around 30 knots right off the glaciers, right into me. I was
already losing body heat. I took a deep breath, leaned back, and
threw my torso forward.... All I could feel was cold. All I could
do was turn over my arms as fast as they would go and breathe.
All I could think about was moving forward." Remember that the
next time you hesitate before dipping into a chilly pool.