lynne cox

During long open water swims, I was often pushed off course by currents, and sometimes I was pushed backwards, but I knew that if I kept going, I could get there

When I curled up in front of the fire with a book, immersed alongside the author in Antarctica’s frigid waters and beautiful scenery, I never imagined that I’d be sitting here able to write this.  Having recently heard from the delightful adventuress who penned it, that, despite being tied up with writing yet another masterpiece, she would happily muse with me on the life and journeys of the extraordinary Lynne Cox…

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… and a seal!

And whilst she may not necessarily fit into what most people think of when they hear “explorer”, when you take a little time to read about the incredible journeys she has made, and links she has helped to forge, not just between individuals, but between nations, and ideas, and scientific impossibilities and reality, somehow it doesn’t seem nearly so far-fetched that she deserves that title, and to be counted amongst the polar explorers she so admires.

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Lynne has swum innumerable stretches of rivers and oceans – from the Nile to the Bering Strait – most remarkably of all, in many ways, the 1.6 miles she spent in Antarctica’s subzero waters. Cold doesn’t even begin to cover it.  With all this experience behind and around her, she has also written the most delightful books about her experience, that are at once inspirational and moving, rousing and touching (not to mentioned published in eighteen different languages!).  Above all, Lynn is a singularly impressive lady with much to teach us about the capabilities of the human body, spirit, and mind.

Writing and swimming, at first glance, seem very different skills. But somehow Lynne has moved seamlessly between them. Not only is Swimming to Antarctica intriguing and beautifully written, but Grayson, her tale of a swimming with a young grey whale, had me all choked up for much of it… so touching.

Do you think that the mental strength and discipline you learnt from your long-distance swimming helped the process of becoming such a successful (and eloquent) writer?

What a great question. Writing and swimming are two very different skills, but for me, swimming and writing compliment each other. When I am swimming, I’m observing what’s happening around me, and I’m thinking about what I’m seeing and feeling, and I also think about what I’m writing. sometimes when I’m swimming I think about the opening chapter of my next book, or i think about the story, and what I need to work on.

The same discipline I used for swimming helped me get my first book published. It took me eleven years to obtain permission from President Gorbachev to swim across the Bering Strait, and it took twenty-one years for me to get my first book, Swimming to Antarctica, published. During long open water swims, I was often pushed off course by currents, and sometimes I was pushed backwards, but I knew that if I kept going, I could get there. If I gave up, all the effort would be lost.  I applied that same way of thinking to getting my book published. I just kept trying until Knopf decided to publish it.

Reading Lynne’s accounts of her swim through the Nile, it was an extremely challenging time.  Not only was she faced with raging currents and bloated carcasses, but also an immense strain on her endurance and belief in herself.  However, she came though, not to finish that race, but to go on to so many more, despite the perilous physical situation that swimming had landed her in. This, almost above all her other achievements, is what most stood out for me; the fact she wasn’t afraid to get back in the water (quite literally!).  I wanted to learn more; how did she keep going? What did she tell herself? Why did she keep going?

The Nile swim was one of my most difficult swims because of the water pollution, and because I was sick before I started the swim.  I swam for fifteen miles and almost passed out in the water. My crew pulled me out and took me to the emergency room. I kept going on that swim because I kept thinking that I was the only swimmer from the United States that had been invited to represent my country in the race, and I wanted to represent it the best I could. I was too sick, and the ER room doctor said that if I had continued swimming, I could have died. That day I learned that there were limits, and that sometimes it was better to get out and come back another day.

It must have been an extraordinary feeling to know you’ve been personally mentioned by a President, let alone that of Russia during such a momentous occasion.  How did it feel at that point? To know that your swimming had gone so much further than just dodging jellyfish and icebergs, and measuring the miles? Did you ever imagine imagine, way back when you were 15 and moving to California to pursue your training, that this is where it would take you?

When President Gorbachev hgve me permission to swim across the Bering Strait, I was thrilled. After the swim was successful, President Gorbachev and President Reagan met at the White House and signed the INF Missile Treaty.  When President Gorbachev toasted my swim across the Bering Strait and said that it helped to open relations between the two countries, I was elated. He understood the reason for the swim, and understood how it helped open the border between the US and the USSR, and good relations between the two countries.

When I was fifteen years old, training to swim the English Channel, I had no idea that would be just the start, and my goals would become bigger, and focus on international relations and on scientific research. It was really exciting and fun to connect all three worlds, and travel. I had the opportunity to travel to and swim to the far reaches of the world, and meet many extraordinary people.

And how can Antarctica not be touched upon! Lynne swam an unimaginable mile (and a bit) through its frigid waters, and in her book she refers to how impressed she was with the human body.  And yet any number of scientists would say it is impossible.

Did the achievement make you think that actually our bodies are capable of so much more than we know, as long as we have the mental strength to take them there?

Many people thought the swim to Antarctica was impossible. Few thought a person could swim a mile in 0 degrees.  In order to do that, I had to have, as you suggested, the mental strength, but I would not have had that mental strength if I didn’t spend two years training, and organising the swim, or finding the best support team to help me. I would not have been able to push myself so far without knowing that I had doctors on the boat, who could help me in an emergency, and crew that were watching for trouble in the waters, like leopard seals. I would not have been able to do that swim if I didn’t have an extraordinary crew that knew how to navigate Antarctic waters. It took great skill and knowledge.

Lastly, if you could invite five people, from any point in history, to join you for dinner, who would they be and why?

 Perhaps five interesting well-travelled and well-read strangers who have a positive outlook, and who would have interesting and informative stories to tell.

For more about Lynne – her adventures and achievements – go here.

To find Lynne’s books, go here.

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