Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Lynn Cox, Endurance Swimmer

At an aquatic center in California for ESPN magazine.
Michael Muller photographer
Lynn Cox is an endurance swimmer who braved the frigid waters of the Bering Straight as a demonstration of endurance and a political gesture during the Cold War.

Swimming since the age of 9 in Manchester, New Hampshire, Lynne Cox always preferred the colder water. One memory her brother David has from those days was when it was hailing in June during a swimming session in their hometown. All the other swimmers were inside, but Lynne swam outside as the coach stood nearby with an umbrella and parka. The nine-year old was the only swimmer in the pool.

Lynne swam for three hours that day as the hail bounced off the pool deck. When a friend's mother helped her dry off afterwards, she said "Someday, Lynne, you're going to swim across the English Channel."

Lynne never forgot that, and when she was 15 years old, she did swim across the channel, and she did it faster and at a younger age than anyone had done it before.

Open water swimming and Catalina

In interviews and in her book Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long Distance Swimmer, Lynn always laughs that she was one of the slowest swimmers. Her temerity and tolerance for the cold was clearly something special however, and when her coach suggested she try open water swimming, she found it was a perfect fit.

Lynne was such a strong open water swimmer that at the age of 14, she was invited to join a group of 5 teenage distance swimmers in a crossing of the Catalina Island Channel in California. The other swimmers were all 14 as well, except for one who was 12. They swam for 3-4 hours a day to prepare, six days a week. The goal was to swim the 26 miles and finish as a team, but during the night of the crossing in the very cold waters that plan fell apart.

Five swimmers started from Catalina, and one dropped out during the swim due to hypothermia. Lynne swam ahead of the others when they lagged behind, and was ahead of record pace for the crossing by one hour when she stopped three miles away from shore to wait for the other swimmers. When the swimmers caught up it was only two of the boys; the final swimmer lagged behind. Lynne encouraged them to wait so they could finish as a team, but the two boys went ahead.

Lynne waited for her teammate and finished the crossing with her - together with the two boys, they were the youngest group to have crossed the Channel. The two boys bragged about beating the girls out of the water.

Lynne learned that she had what it took to complete such cold open water swims handily, but it was the last time she would ever do an open water crossing with a team. She would go back three years later and do the crossing again herself, at the age of 17, and break the men's and women's record.

English Channel

After crossing the Catalina Channel, Lynne went to England to attempt the Channel Crossing. She spoke with swimmers and coaches who had attempted the crossing before, and had both succeeded and failed. On July 20th, 1972 she crossed from England to France in the fastest time ever swum, nine hours fifty-seven minutes - and that included an extra five miles when the current pushed her so far off course she had to land at a different point in France than she intended. She was the youngest person to ever cross the Channel successfully.

Lynne with brothers Dick and Bill Crowell while training
for the English Channel swim. The brothers were also training
for an attempt. Early 1970s, photo courtesy of Hulton Archive/Getty Images
When Davis Hart broke her record that same year by thirteen minutes, Lynne decided to return to the English Channel and swim it one more time. For some reason it was pulling at her, and she also wanted to silence those who had said she had "gotten lucky" on the night she had crossed the channel and had been blessed with the perfect conditions.

She returned to the English Channel and swam it again, in choppier seas than ever, making it 33 miles this time (the first crossing was 30 miles). She swam it faster than before and broke the record by swimming 9 hours, 36 minutes.

The next year Lynne went to Egypt and was the only American to participate in a swim across the Nile, though she did not complete the swim - the Nile was filled with sewage and she even swam into the carcasses of dead animals, but as this seemed to be par for the course for the Egyptian swimmers, she persevered for 15 miles before becoming too sick to continue.

She made friends in the country that would last for a lifetime, however, and impressed the local team by "not being a man" - they had heard of Channel crossing record and could not believe such a thing could be accomplished by a female. Their evidence was to meet Lynn for themselves.

New Zealand's Cook Straight

In her international feats of swimming, Lynne often served as a source of curiosity and fascination for local citizens who could not believe she had come all that way to complete what usually seemed like a maddeningly tough swim. In that capacity she became something of an ambassador for the US, while setting distance and endurance records around the world.

Lynne in training in the 1970s: AP photo

Lynne went to New Zealand in February of 1975 to attempt the 12-mile crossing between the North and South Islands of New Zealand and break the women's record for doing so. Locals who knew how treacherous that waters could be were listening to her attempt on the radio, and international sports reporters monitored her progress from a nearby boat, so it was with some frustration after fighting the current for 5 hours that Lynne was told she was actually further back than when she had started.

In her book, Lynne describes how she felt upon learning that for the last two hours, she had steadily been going backwards. Her swim advisor John Sonnichsen hadn't wanted to tell her for fear that she would get discouraged. Wrote Lynne, "Oh, he was right; I was."

As Lynne continued to fight the water, further back from where she had started, reports came in of how New Zealanders were pulling for her. Lynne's supporters on the boat shouted her messages that had been radioed in.

"A Girl Scout just called in from Nelson. She said to tell you to keep going, she thinks you can make it. A farmer called a minute ago from Christchurch; he said to send you his best wishes. So many people are calling for you Lynne, to wish you the best. You've got the entire country of New Zealand pulling for you!" she was told.

The radio station Radio Wellington in New Zealand cancelled its local programming to carry live national coverage of her swim, and more people were tuning in every hour. Lynne wrote that "it was as if, one by one, people lit a million candles."

As she continued to swim, the water conditions got worse - there were two storms converging on the Cook Straight, and she was caught between them. One of the boats accompanying her nearly crashed into her, and the propeller grazed her leg.

She continued to swim amid reports that all the boats and planes that crossed the channel that day were monitoring her progress. The waves were seven feet high. A pod of dolphins started swimming with her, and she would see them again off and on for the rest of her swim. She finished in 12 hours and 2 1/2 minutes, the first woman to complete the swim, and in the worst conditions.

The Bering Straight

By now Lynne had come up with a new challenge, one that had never even been considered before: the Bering Straight, a 2.7 mile channel between the United States and what was then called the Soviet Union (now Russia).

It was her father's idea, and not only had it never been considered, no-one even thought it was possible - Soviets and Americans on either side of the straight agreed, just a few minutes in the freezing water could kill someone, and no-one who was in the water more than 20 minutes had ever survived. Lynne expected to be in the water for 2-3 hours.

Besides that, the it seemed impossible from a political perspective - it was the fall of 1975, and the Cold War was ongoing. As Lynne describes it, the Unites States and Soviet Union were "locked in a power struggle, distrusting and fearful that the other would start a nuclear war." But she was nagged by the feeling that ever since she was sixteen, she had wanted to make a difference in the world. In some way, she felt by swimming from one side of the other of their two countries, it might make a statement regarding how close the countries actually were.

Making it even more unlikely (if that were possible), the Russian island she would be swimming to was a port where surveillance equipment was maintained - Lynne could hardly imagine getting permission from the Soviets to access such an area.

Still, she decided to try, and would start by seeing if it would even physically possible.

Cold Endurance

Lynn's unusual ability to withstand cold temperatures has made her the subject of scientific study at the University of California and by Navy SEALs, who tested her for their own training purposes.

Examining her body temperature in cold water to better understand what the human body is capable of and how it self-regulated, researchers found than in 50 degree water as she swam for 40 minutes, Lynne's temperature actually increased to 102 degrees. This was unlike any human subject they had studied before, as every other subject would steadily loose heat until they become hypothermic, but Lynne was able to maintain her body heat and actually raise it by a few degrees.

The researchers could not entirely understand why that occurred for Lynne and not other swimmers, but it did explain why she could withstand the cold better than anyone else. After studying her intensely in water that was colder and colder and seeing how long she could endure it, they agreed that a swim in the Bering Straight was possible.


Physically Lynne prepared for the swim across the Bering Straight by swimming in the coldest bodies of water imaginable. She swam in lakes in Greenland, the waters of Alaska, and past icebergs in Antarctica, all in training for the one swim she spent all of her free time lobbying for.

After 11 years of meetings with state officials in the U.S., Soviet officials, and even an interview with the FBI (who were curious about why this swim was so important to Lynne, at this time), Lynne decided to take a chance and attempt the swim anyway.

It was the summer of 1987 when Lynn attempted the swim, but the water would be only 3.3 degrees Celsius. On the eve of the swim they had still heard nothing from the Soviets granting Lynne permission to go forward, but as Lynne described, "We knew something was happening because the Soviets moved two ships the size of football fields up into the Bering Strait."

The U.S. responded by sending the National Guard up in jet fighters to survey the Soviets in the water, to which the Soviets responded by sending up their own jets to see why the Americans were up there - said Lynne, "And I was thinking that this was supposed to be about world peace."

With hours to go until the start, the work came through from Moscow - President Gorbachev himself had granted Lynne permission after watching a TV report about her swim and realizing it would be too embarrassing to turn her away now, with the entire world watching.

Lynn entered the water on the morning of August 7th and swam with kayaks by her side on an uncommonly calm day in the Straight. By the time she emerged from the water on the other side, her body was completely grey. She had finished in 2 hours and 5 minutes.

She was greeted on the beach by a Soviet welcoming committee that game her biscuits, tea, and hot water bottles and ushered her into a tent where she could be tended to.

Later that year when President Gorbachev travelled to Washington to sign a nuclear weapons treaty, he and President Ronald Regan raised their glasses and toasted Lynne's gesture. "She proved by her courage how close to each other our peoples live," Gorbachev said.

Lynne had accomplished her goal, and the swim turned her into a celebrity.

Lynne today

Today Lynne Cox holds 57 major open-water records and is a member of the International Swimming Hall of Fame, a title that falls well short of describing the physical acts she has accomplished.

Lynne Cox had always been a quiet women, someone who kept to herself. She enjoyed the solitude and independence she found swimming and did not attempt the somewhat outrageous swims that she did out of a need for attention; she did it because she loved the sensation of swimming through the cold water, and because she knew she could.

In addition, throughout her travels she was often touched by the extent to which people in other countries who were essentially strangers would greet her (for the large part) be supportive of her swims. In this way, Lynne's international endurance attempts became a way of communicating with other countries and tying them together, at least for the duration of her swim.

She still swims on a daily basis and hopes to continue as long as she can.

2013 with photographer Michael Muller for ESPN


Hell in High Waters, Sarah Turcotte, ESPN The Magazine, May 23rd, 2013
Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long Distance Swimmer, Lynne Cox, 2004

Swimming to Antarctica, Lynne Cox, 2004

Swim the Broke Cold War Ice Curtain, BBC, Simon Watts, August 8, 2012

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