It is hard to list all the adversaries that the American long-distance swimmer Lynne Cox has overcome. In the past 30 years, this real-life mermaid has battled sharks, icebergs, the KGB and the FBI, eight-foot waves, ten-knot currents and impenetrable fog. Others have swum further, but no one has negotiated such inhospitable waters, or turned swimming into a form of international diplomacy. From the seething currents of the Strait of Magellan to the Bering Strait at the height of the cold war, there are few watery places that she has not traversed. She can write, too.
This gripping memoir begins with the nine-year-old Cox at a swimming club in New Hampshire. With a storm brewing, her peers follow the coach inside for circuit training, but she remains in the outdoor pool as hailstones pound the water around her. Afterwards, one of the waiting mothers tells her: “Some day, Lynne, you’re going to swim across the English Channel.” The prediction soon comes true. At the age of 15, she crosses from England to France, setting a world record and starting an odyssey that culminates in 2001 with the first mile- long swim through the zero-degree waters of Antarctica.
Throughout, one foe stands larger than any other – the cold. As Cox explains: “Cold water leeches the heat from the body 25 to 30 times faster than cold air.” But, as researchers found, her body reacts differently from those of “normal” people. In very cold water, she creates body heat more rapidly than she loses it, preventing her from going into hypothermia.
Although Antarctica remains the pinnacle of cold-water endurance, Cox’s most glorious achievement was her swim across the Bering Strait. It took her 11 years to persuade the Soviets to open the border, and when the KGB blocked it at the last minute, President Gorbachev had to step in. Even so, the swim nearly went disastrously wrong: the Inuit boats leading the way got lost in the fog, and for a few crucial minutes couldn’t find the Soviet navy ship that was to escort them to the other side. When Cox clambered on to Soviet soil, the welcome was surreal and extraordinary. Four months later, when Gorbachev and Reagan signed the INF Missile Treaty, the Soviet leader praised her for improving relations between the two nations: “She proved by her courage how close to each other our peoples live.”
Cox succeeds in making each swim different and, despite the physical nature of what she does, displays an acute awareness of her surroundings. Of one time when she waited alone in the Pacific fog, she writes:
There were fish, very large ones, moving below me. They might have been seals, dolphins, or sharks – I couldn’t tell . . . I could feel the water suddenly become hollow, and I could feel myself dropping down into the hole when they swam below me.
This swim ended in failure, leaving her depressed and tempted to give up. But on her next outing, her reasons for doing what she does became clear: “I wanted to do this because I wanted to be good at something, and because I loved swimming. I loved being out on the open ocean with them, doing something so beautiful, risky and tough.” It is hard to restrain a cheer as one reads these uplifting words.
Swimming to Antarctica: tales of a long-distance swimmer
Lynne Cox Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 323pp, Â£18.99