Lynne Cox is a best-selling author, ambassador of peace, and a revered icon. She is also the best cold water endurance swimmer in history.
Cox is most comfortable in the cold. As a chubby nine-year-old girl on her first swim team, in Manchester, New Hampshire, Cox chose to swim laps outside in a hailstorm rather than practicing indoors with her teammates, including her older brother and younger sister. “I remember one day in June, it was so cold I wouldn’t even put my toe in the water,” recalled David Cox. “I looked out the window to see our coach standing on the starting block in full rain gear, wearing a parka and holding an umbrella. My sister was the only person in the pool. Like it was sunny and 75.” Born in Boston in 1957, Cox moved with her family to the West Coast when her radiologist father took a job near Long Beach, California, when Lynne was 12. Brother David and sister Laura were much faster than Lynne. “I was always in the slow lane.” But it was her endurance that got her coaches’ attention. Given her tolerance for cold, they suggested she try open water swimming. She excelled and quickly became the strongest swimmer in her open water group. At 14, she and three others became the first teenagers to swim the 27 miles from Orange County’s Seal Beach to Catalina Island. She was on record pace when she stopped to allow the group to catch up to her—honoring an agreement they had made to all stay together—before finishing in 12 hours and 36 minutes. “I knew I’d kept my commitment,” recalled Cox. “But that was the last time I was going to swim with a team.”
Three years later, Cox swam the Catalina Channel alone in just eight hours, 48 minutes, breaking the men’s [8:50] and women’s [12:18] world records.
In 1972, at 15, she swam the English Channel, covering the 30 mile distance in 9:57, faster than anyone—man or woman—in history. She bettered the mark by 21 minutes the following year. In 1975, Cox became the first woman to swim between the North and South islands of New Zealand. As a college sophomore, in 1976, she swam through the 42 degree water of the Strait of Magellan. Ice baths are commonly used to help athletes recover from workouts and competitions. Wayne Gretzky credits them with prolonging his legendary career. Athletic trainers limit athletes to 12 minutes in an ice bath to prevent irreparable muscle damage. Lynne Cox swam the Strait of Magellan for one hour and two minutes.
Basic hyperthermia happens when a body’s core temperature drops below 98.6 degrees. To adapt, the human body shuts down the small blood vessels in its extremities to ensure that all of the blood rushes to the core to warm the brain, heart, liver and kidneys. Frostbite is a survival mechanism.
Lynne Cox doesn’t even look like an athlete. At 5’6”, she does not have broad shoulders or a trim waist and looks more like a dog groomer than a world-class athlete. A normal female has between 18 and 25 percent body fat. At 180 pounds, Cox has 36 percent body fat. She is built for the cold, with an extra layer of fat surrounding her vital organs and an uncommon mental resolve. “I feel the cold. I feel it. I feel pain. I just can’t let it change what I’m trying to do.” She sets goals. She then sets out to achieve them.
Navy SEALS have tested Cox for their own training purposes and her alma mater, the University of California-Santa Barbara [Daily Dose, 9/8/16] has studied her to better understand the human body’s capabilities in cold water. Scientists put Cox–whose childhood hero is Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, the first person to reach both the North and South Poles–in 50 degree water and monitored her as she swam for 40 minutes. By the end of the swim, her core temperature had risen to 102 degrees.
Cox has swum around the Statue of Liberty and under the Golden Gate Bridge. She has rounded the South African Cape of Good Hope during apartheid. A member of the International Swimming Hall of Fame and owner of 57 major open water records, Cox found her calling when she left the pool for the open water. “Everything opened up. It was like going from a cage to freedom.” In the water, Cox says she feels “invigorated, fresh, like I have no constraints.” She once encountered a baby gray whale that had lost its mother off the coast of Orange County. They swam together for five hours.
Lynne Cox first had the idea of swimming between the United States and Russia in 1976. “I wanted to open the border so we could become friends.” She spent years lobbying Soviet officials for permission to enter their waters. “The Soviets kept saying ‘nyet’ and I decided it meant ‘not yet.” Eleven years later, after convincing Soviet leaders to open the border for the first time in 50 years, Cox entered the 38 degree water of the Bering Strait on August 7, 1987. Starting on Alaska’s Little Diomede Island, she swam 2.7 miles in a little over two hours, arriving on Big Diomede Island in Russia. At the height of the Cold War, Cox had swum in some cold water. When Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev visited the White House to sign a nuclear weapons treaty later that year, he and President Reagan raised a glass to toast the swimmer. “She proved by her courage how close to each other our peoples live,” Gorbachev said.
In 2002, Cox decided to test the limits of human endurance by swimming to Antarctica, which reaches temperatures of 120 degrees below zero in winter. The frigid water is inhabited by killer whales and dangerous icebergs. Local fishing boats don’t even have life jackets. As one boat captain said, “It’s a waste of time. Within a minute, anyone would be dead.” The water is slush. Were it not for the current, it would be a solid sheet of ice. The water temperature was 28.8 degrees when Cox entered. Minutes later, it dropped two degrees. Wearing only a swimsuit, cap, and googles, Lynne Cox covered nearly 1.22 miles in 25 minutes.
Lynne Cox is an award-winning author and motivational speaker. Her sixth and most recent book, Swimming in the Sink, was released September 2016.