Los Alamitos’ Lynne Cox swam 2.7 miles across the frigid Bering Strait between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in water that would kill most people in 30 minutes. But that breakthrough moment 25 years ago only tells part of the story.
Plenty of athletes accomplished the extraordinary in 1987. Wayne Gretzky was the National Hockey League’s top scorer and most valuable player, and his Edmonton Oilers also won the Stanley Cup. Martina Navratilova won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. And Ireland’s Stephen Roche won an amazing cycling trifecta—the Giro d’Italia, the Tour de France, and the Road World Cycling Championship.
To me, though, the most significant sports accomplishment that year—by perhaps the most remarkable athlete Orange County has ever produced—took place far from a stadium or arena, without much media coverage or any significant prizes, trophies, or endorsement deals.
Twenty-five years ago, at 9:30 a.m. on Aug. 7, Lynne Cox, a charming, gregarious, 30-year-old open-water distance swimmer from Los Alamitos, made her way to the rocky waterline of an Alaskan island called Little Diomede, between the Bering and Chukchi seas. Dense fog shrouded the small group of Inuit locals, journalists, doctors, and volunteers who’d gathered, waiting to see if she’d really do what she spent 11 years planning, training, and negotiating to do.
At 5-foot-6, shivering in only a thin one-piece swimsuit and holding her yellow bathing cap and swim goggles, Cox couldn’t see her destination, Big Diomede, but she knew the island was out there in the foreboding gray, nearly three miles across the frigid Bering Strait in what was then the Soviet Union. Equally unseen were two Soviet navy vessels, which, as promised, awaited her arrival at the international date line, the border between the world’s preeminent superpowers. It had been closed to boats since 1948, and had never been swum.
Then Cox did the unthinkable. Without benefit of an insulating wetsuit or grease, and without anyone in her home country much noticing, she pulled her bathing cap over her bobbed hair, snapped her goggles into place, and stepped into water between 38 and 44 degrees—so cold that, had it been about 10 degrees cooler, she could have skated across.
Surely you can imagine the pain.
Our most familiar athletes are the ones with the big contracts and unfathomable endorsement deals, or those whose boorish behavior or criminal records make them famous for entirely different reasons. That’s not to diminish the achievements of our thoroughbreds. Watch the silky glide of Kobe Bryant through traffic in the paint, or the raw power of Misty May-Treanor rocketing from the sand to spike a volleyball, and you know immediately that, yes, they’re different from you and me. I don’t begrudge them their medals, trophies, fame, and wealth. They’ve worked hard for everything they’ve achieved.
But I’m writing this homage to Lynne Cox on the 25th anniversary of her Bering Strait swim because our culture sometimes overlooks those who accomplish remarkable feats and still remain admirably grounded, who have no hope of widespread public acclaim, who never convert their accomplishments into significant cash.
The short version of Cox’s story is that she recognized her almost singular talent as an open-water marathon swimmer at an early age, and then worked like a demon to develop it. She’s not exceptionally fast in a pool, but her endurance and will in the unpredictable, open ocean are astounding. At 14, she swam the 27-mile Santa Catalina Channel. A year later, in 1972, she broke the men’s and women’s records for the nearly 24-mile English Channel swim between the U.K. and France, completing the legendary crossing in 9 hours and 57 minutes. Someone else broke her record not long after, so she returned in 1973 and improved her time to 9 hours and 36 minutes, again breaking the men’s record. Those feats alone might have been enough to get her inducted into the Swimming Hall of Fame, and in 2000, she was.
But for young Cox, early success brought about a sort of existential crisis: “After you’ve broken a world record twice, why go back again? What more can you do with it?”
Cox found her true calling at age 18 in the middle of a grueling 1975 swim across the 11-mile Cook Strait between New Zealand’s north and south islands, the first by a woman. As she struggled for more than 12 hours against high waves and currents that stretched the distance to 21 miles, her crew began to tell her about the supportive calls flowing into Radio Wellington, which was covering the swim live. One came from the country’s prime minister. At one point, the captain of a cross-channel ferry risked his job by abandoning his regular route to get closer to Cox. He urged his 400 passengers outside to cheer her on, and raised an American flag in tribute to her efforts.
“That’s when I realized a swim could be a powerful thing,” Cox recalls.
Thus began a lifelong odyssey. Instead of trying to break records, she began a series of swims that were the first of their kind, or staged in locations that presented an opportunity to shine a spotlight where political tensions ran high. It took her more than a decade of complicated negotiations to pull off the 1987 Bering Strait swim, which later was toasted at the White House by President Reagan and visiting Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev as a landmark in thawing U.S.-Soviet relations. The following year, I tagged along as a newspaper reporter to chronicle her swim across Siberia’s Lake Baikal, the world’s oldest and deepest lake, against the backdrop of a crumbling Soviet bloc. There, in that remote region of the planet, I saw thousands of Soviet citizens greet her as a hero as she climbed out of the water.
In 1990, the year after the Berlin Wall fell, reuniting the German nations, she swam the Spree River from East to West Berlin, passing white crosses that marked where more desperate swimmers had been shot dead along that once-tense border. In 1994, she swam through the Gulf of Aqaba from Egypt to Israel, and then from Israel to Jordan.
Still, she remained mostly unknown, even in Orange County, where she often trains by swimming between jetties near the Seal Beach Pier.
By then, Cox already was offering herself to another cause—medical research. Scientists had long marveled at her ability to survive water temperatures that would kill most people. (See opposite page.) Could the lessons learned from studying Cox provide medical insights? She willingly became a guinea pig, submitting herself to rigorous testing. For the Bering Strait swim, she swallowed an uncomfortably large thermosensitive metal capsule that transmitted her body’s core temperature to researchers, then politely returned the expensive device the next day in a plastic bag. She also managed that swim while enduring a cumbersome rectal probe. A University of London researcher once had her spend hours in a tank of 42-degree water, and also submerged her hand in 32-degree water for half an hour. (“One of the most painful things I’ve ever done in my life.”) She did it all with unwavering good humor, and sincere curiosity about what makes her different.
In 2002, at the age of 45, determined to push herself to the extreme, she plunged into 32-degree water about a mile from the Antarctic ice shelf and swam more than a mile to shore, steering around sharp-edged ice floes, escorted by curious penguins. By then, the seemingly impossible things she was doing were getting hard to ignore, so CBS’ “60 Minutes” sent a film crew and correspondent Scott Pelley along to witness what otherwise might have been unbelievable.
What’s really unbelievable, to me, is that at a time when 24-hour sports programming creates borderline idolatry, Cox went a different direction—her own. NBC has been working hard at the Olympics to mint a new generation of sports heroes hoping to cash in. But think about the current crop of elites: golf’s Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson; basketball’s Bryant and LeBron James; soccer’s David Beckham, Abby Wambach, and Lionel Messi; baseball’s Albert Pujols, Mariano Rivera, and Alex Rodriguez; tennis’s Roger Federer; auto racing’s Michael Schumacher, and surfing’s Kelly Slater.
Every one is an athletic treasure. But other than sheer excellence in their sport and the occasional charitable foundation, what do they stand for? Gatorade? Nike? Adidas? Pfizer? Samsung?
Only the rarest athletes become bigger than their sport and themselves. Seats at that table are reserved for cultural symbols: Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King. You know their names because they excelled in competitive sports played out in dramatic fashion before massive audiences, and in most cases also reaped commercial rewards. You don’t know much about Cox because she pursued greatness far from the spotlight, and often at the ends of the Earth.
In a 1999 profile of her in The New Yorker, Charles Sprawson summed up the essential truth about Orange County’s one-of-a-kind swimmer: “Cox’s life has been a form of knightly quest, and her spirit has remained essentially romantic.”
When it came time to tell her own story, Cox did so with similarly inspiring results. She had been trying for years to write a memoir about her extraordinary life. After her Antarctic adventure became the capstone to her swimming career, she focused on a new challenge: to conquer the unpredictable waters of publishing. She proved no less determined to succeed than during her channel-swimming days, and she sometimes struggled just as hard. But she persisted. And, of course, succeeded.
When her 2005 memoir, “Swimming to Antarctica,” was published, it hit The New York Times bestseller list. A year later, her second book, “Grayson,” a lyrical account of her encounter with a lost baby gray whale during a training swim off Seal Beach, also landed on that coveted list and later was translated into 16 languages. She wrote a 2008 story for The New Yorker about swimming portions of the Northwest Passage from Greenland to Alaska—using Roald Amundsen’s account of his journey as her guide—and it presaged her third book, “South With the Sun: Roald Amundsen, His Polar Explorations, and the Quest for Discovery,” published last year.
Cox has pursued her writing with unwavering commitment and the same steely will that has propelled her across some of the world’s most dangerous waters. And that’s why, decades after I first met her, she remains an inspiration, not because she’s an elite athlete, but because she embodies two fundamental truths: It’s possible to succeed spectacularly by just being yourself, and true greatness requires you to be bigger than that.
The Cold Warrior
Lynne Cox’s body is ideally suited to survive icy seawater. Her unusual combination of fitness and body fat enables her to generate lots of heat, and then retain it. Scientists say her secrets could improve hypothermia recovery and open-heart surgery.
Years of training as an open-water marathon swimmer gave Cox an elite athlete’s cardiovascular system and the ability to generate a lot of body heat over a long period of time.
While the body fat percentage in a typical American woman ranges between 22 and 25 percent, Cox’s was between 30 and 35 percent in 1987. More importantly, her fat is evenly distributed, right down to her wrists and ankles. It’s as if she’s wearing an internal wetsuit. That’s important because water leaches heat 25 times faster than air. When Cox climbed into the 38- to 42-degree Bering Strait, the blood vessels near the surface of her skin constricted, forcing warm blood into her core. Her internal wetsuit helped keep the blood surrounding her vital organs warm.
Cox has one other unusual physiological advantage. Most of us either sink or float. But Cox has “neutral buoyancy,” meaning her body density is the same as that of seawater. Because she expends little energy to stay in an efficient swimming position, nearly all of her body’s resources can be used to stay alive and move forward.
When Cox climbed from the Bering Strait after her 2-hour, 6-minute swim, her core temperature was about the same as when she got in. Once out of the water, though, her warmed blood circulated back out to her frigid skin, which cooled it like water passing through a car radiator. When the chilled blood returned to her core, her temperature began to fall in a dangerous phenomenon known as “afterdrop.” After 90 minutes of uncontrollable shivering, her temperature returned to normal.
This article originally appeared in the August 2012 issue of Orange Coast magazine.