Strength of Will

UPDATED: April 29, 2011
PUBLISHED: April 29, 2011

“It is August 7, 1987, and I am swimming across the Bering Sea. It’s as if I’m swimming naked into a blizzard. My hands are numb, and they ache deep down through the bone. I can’t tell if they are pulling any water. Suddenly it occurs to me that my life is escaping through my hands. This frigid and ominous sea is behaving like an enormous vampire slowly sucking the warmth, the life from my body, and I think, ‘Oh my God, pick up your pace. Swim faster, faster. You’ve got to go as fast as you can. You’ve got to create more heat. Or you will die!’ ”

Lynne Cox was 30 when she swam across the Bering Strait from the United States to the former Soviet Union. The feat, described in her 2004 autobiography Swimming to Antarctica, took 11 years of preparation and training. She was the first to cross that border since 1948.

With Cold War tension still high, Cox’s symbolic swim helped bring the leaders of the two superpowers together. They agreed on one point: their admiration for her spectacular accomplishment. “When I heard that Gorbachev and Reagan toasted my swim at a White House dinner, I was overjoyed and close to tears,” Cox recalled in a recent interview.

This achievement was neither the first nor the last demonstration of courage and fortitude for Cox. When she was 15, she broke the men’s and women’s records for swimming the English Channel , completing a 27-mile crossing in 9 hours and 57 minutes. The next year, a man broke that record. Cox returned and broke it again, swimming 33 miles in 9 hours and 36 minutes.

Other firsts for Cox include being the first woman to swim the Cook Strait in New Zealand, the first person to swim the Straits of Magellan in Chile, and the first to swim around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, where she had a close call with a shark that was shot by a crew member as it emerged from the water toward her.

“To achieve a goal that is thought to be impossible, you first have to simply believe that it is possible. Then figure out how to attain it,” she says.

One of her most remarkable accomplishments was in 2002, at age 45, swimming more than a mile in the freezing waters off Antarctica, wearing only swimsuit, goggles and swim cap. Hypothermia experts say anyone else would’ve experienced immediate pain, failing muscles and a heartbeat that would’ve stopped within about five minutes. Her swim took almost a half hour.

“I believe that once you really stretch yourself, once you realize your potential, it’s hard to just settle for things as they are,” Cox says. “There’s something very special about knowing that you have to reach deep within yourself to achieve what you want to accomplish. Also, it’s wonderful to be able to work with a great team of people who support you in your efforts.”

Cox attributes her skill and her strength of will to her family. She learned to swim from her mother, who in turn learned from her father. Cox’s older brother, David, and two younger sisters, Laura and Ruth, are also top-notch swimmers.

She was also inspired by Don Gambril, a renowned swimming coach with whom she trained from age 12 in Long Beach, Calif., along with some of the world’s best swimmers.

In those early years, Cox cultivated her interest in dangerous long-distance swims, and she taught herself to push the pain out of her mind to focus on her goals. At 14, she and her teammates became the first teens to swim the San Pedro Channel to Catalina Island off Southern California. Swimming 27 miles in the darkness of night, “there were deepwater pelagic sharks in this channel: big ones, white ones, manand woman-eating ones,” Cox says. “No long-distance swimmer had been attacked during a crossing, yet we knew that they were down there somewhere.”

She says there are many challenges with any swim in unknown waters—“from cold waters to currents, fog, shipping, sharks and other threatening marine animals.” She minimizes the risk by researching the conditions, and she relies heavily on members of her team. “There’s a deep sense of satisfaction when I achieve these goals,” she says, “and because I share the achievement with others, it makes it all the more meaningful.”

In fact, despite the solitary nature of long-distance swimming, Cox thrives on the team aspect, the ability to bring people together, to share her experiences with others. As a speaker to corporate audiences across the country, she says “that’s where the real success lies: Taking what you’ve learned and sharing it with others, so they can use it as inspiration to go for their goals.”

It was during the Cook Strait swim, between the North and South Islands of New Zealand, when Cox says she realized great goals aren’t achieved alone. “[New Zealanders] had cheered me on for hours, and in doing so, they had cheered the same human spirit within themselves,” Cox writes in Swimming to Antarctica. “Through the Cook Strait crossing, I realized that a swim can be far more than an athletic adventure. It can become a way to bridge the distance between peoples and nations.”

The message of unity runs throughout Cox’s writing. “So much can be achieved—so many dreams can be reached—if we simply figure out ways we can work together,” Cox says. “If only all the negative energy could be turned to positive energy, think of all that could happen in this world.”

Her second book, Grayson, is about discovering a baby whale separated from its mother one day while Cox was training for a big swim. She decided to reunite the whale she called Grayson with its mother, and she spent the day enlisting the help of the community to help do that. Published in 2006, Grayson has been translated into 11 languages and was released this year in paperback by Harcourt.

Through Grayson, Cox reminds us not to give up and to have faith in the human spirit. “I believe there are two basic ways of thinking: one of possibility and hope, the other of doubt and impossibility,” Cox writes in the book. “If I try, if I believe, if I work toward something, and if I can convince other people to help, the impossible isn’t impossible at all.”