Q: When you were twelve years old, your
parents decided to move from New Hampshire to California so you and your
siblings could train with a top-notch swimming coach. What role did your family
play in your development as a channel swimmer?
A: My parents were very supportive of my channel
swimming. On my early swims, either my father or my mother went along with me on
the escort boat. They also took turns walking with me during my training
sessions. They helped me learn to maintain my pace. When my mother and I
traveled to England so I could attempt the English Channel, my brother and two
sisters pitched in and took care of things my mom would have done if she had
been at home. They were all very supportive of my swimming, and for a period of
time, David, my older brother, was my swimming coach.
Q: At the young age of fifteen, you "achieved
your highest goal in life": crossing the English Channel and subsequently
breaking the world record. When did you transition from setting goals of
breaking records to setting personal goals that would somehow affect the world?
A: My swim across the Cook Strait in 1975 was the
event that changed everything. After I had been swimming for more than five
hours, being pushed backward the entire time by a very strong current, people
throughout New Zealand started calling to my escort boat, telling me I could
make the swim. There were so many other wonderful and difficult experiences that
I had on that swim, but the most important idea that came out of it was that a
swim could be more than an individual athletic challenge. A swim could be a way
to connect with people from different countries, and it could be a way to open
borders between people.
Q: Your account of the Nile River race is
unforgettable: grossly polluted water, animal carcasses floating around you, and
an extreme case of dysentery. In fact, when ensuing swims got difficult, the
disappointments of the Nile swim haunted you. What did you learn from that
A: Not to swim in the Nile River again.
Seriously, I was asked to compete in the race the following spring, but I
tactfully turned down the invitation. But I learned so much beyond that. I
learned that I had limits. That I could die. And that no swim was worth that
much. I learned that when things start going wrong, one right after another,
it's time to stop, to get out. By getting out, you have a chance to stop and
evaluate what went wrong, figure out what you can do to change it, decide if you
want to go back and try again. In my case, I knew the Nile River was dirty, and
I decided I didn't want to go back
Q: You started the Bering Strait swim from
Little Diomede Island in Alaska on August 7, 1987, swam across the international
dateline, and landed on Big Diomede Island in the Soviet Union on August 8,
1987. You joke that your swim across the Bering Strait from Alaska to the Soviet
Union took two hours, six minutes, and eleven years. Why was making that swim so
important to you?
A: To answer that question, it's really important
to put my response in context. When I first began working on gaining permission
to swim across the Bering Strait, the relationship between the United States and
the U.S.S.R. was at an all-time low. We were in the midst of the Cold War.
Tensions were very high. I can't remember the exact number of nuclear weapons
the Soviets or the United States had at the time; all I remember is that we had
numerous warheads aimed at each other that we were both prepared to fire. It
seemed both frightening and dumb to me, the idea that we could destroy the earth
many times over. With our arsenals, we could destroy not only the enemy, but
also ourselves and all life on earth. I believed that someone had to do
something to change that. I believed that we didn't need to see the world in
terms of them and us. I thought that maybe there was a way to change that. Maybe
there was a way we could cooperate. Maybe we didn't have to be enemies; maybe we
could be friends. The big question, though, was how to create positive change.
At UCSB I studied history to find a way to answer this question for myself. I
began to realize that change begins at first with one person's vision. That
vision is shared, and the strength of that vision grows, and through that growth
change begins. Sometimes it's very hard to convince people to share your vision,
and that was the difficulty I faced. No one believed someone could swim in water
temperatures as cold as thirty-eight degrees in a swimsuit. No one believed that
the Soviets would open a border that had been closed for forty-eight years. No
one believed that the Soviets would allow a group of Americans to land on what
was a high-security area on Big Diomede Island. So I just had to believe
strongly myself that it could be done, and I found people who shared that idea,
from the Assistant Secretary of State, to the Soviet Ambassador to the United
States, to a senator from Alaska, a congressman from California, a Goodwill
Games organizer, and so many other people. It was important to show the Soviets
that we were neighbors and, more than that, that we needed to be friends.
Q: Four months after your Bering Strait swim,
President Reagan and President Gorbachev met at the White House to sign the INF
Missile Treaty. At one point, President Gorbachev made a toast and said, "Last
summer it took one brave American by the name of Lynne Cox just two hours to
swim from one of our countries to the other. We saw on television how sincere
and friendly the meeting was between our people and the Americans when she
stepped onto the Soviet shore. She proved by her courage how close to each other
our peoples live." What emotions did that evoke in you?
A: I was thrilled and so excited. Having
President Gorbachev acknowledge the swim at the White House during the historic
signing of the INF Missile Treaty was beyond anything I could have ever
imagined. It told me that he completely understood my reason for the swim and
that he held the same belief that we could become friends. More than that, the
treaty signing between President Reagan and President Gorbachev demonstrated
that belief. Sometimes you have dreams, sometimes they are big, but you can
never imagine how far they will go, or how they might inspire someone to do
Q: To you personally, what was the most
gratifying aspect of this swim?
A: It's so difficult to say any one thing was the
most gratifying. There was so much that came out of it. To see families reunited
on Big Diomede Island for the first time in forty-eight years was absolutely
fantastic. And it was incredible to stand on the shores of Big Diomede and hug
the Russians and feel their warmth and joy, and know that they were as moved by
the swim as we were, that theylike uswanted to be friends. It was gratifying
to share the success with all the people who believed in the swim and who had
helped make it happen. Joy shared is multiplied many times over.
Q: During your 1.06-mile-swim to Antarctica,
you maneuvered through icebergs, swam with penguins, and endured
thirty-two-degree water for twenty-five minutesin just a swimsuit. In a
situation where most people couldn't survive, what was going through your mind?
A: There were many things going through my mind
during that swim. The first was to breathe. The water was so cold that it was
very difficult to catch my breath. I was both very excited and amazed that the
human body is able to adjust to such extremes and that in many ways it knows how
to respond better than the mind. At the same time, I was fascinated with the
clarity of the water. You could look down through it and see forever. And the
icebergs were both beautiful and dangerous. I wanted to get close to them to see
what they looked like above and below the water, and I wanted to see for myself
if it was true that only one-third of the iceberg is above water. Usually on a
swim I'm able to communicate easily with my crew, but because the water was so
cold, because it was so difficult to breathe, I wasn't able to talk easily. A
lot of the swim was confusing to me. From the onset, it seemed like we were
going in the wrong direction. And these were just a few things going through my
Q: What swims have you done since the
Antarctica mile in 2002?
A: Ever since the Antarctica swim, I have been
traveling across the United States and Canada doing the book tour, corporate
lecture tour, and university tour. But I've managed to get in a few great swims
along the way, not channel crossings, but swims that are fascinating,
challenging, or just pure fun. Last fall, Discovery International did a segment
on me so I got a chance to swim across the base of the Blackstone Glacier in
Prince William Sound, and I've had the chance to swim in the ocean off Martha's
Vineyard, off the shore of Miami, and along the coast of Maui as well as in a
beautiful hotel pool in Toronto, where I could watch the snow fall on the
skylight as I swam in ninety-degree water. Each swim creates a memory, big or
small. All are important to me.
Q: As a whole, what swim taught you the most
A: I don't think one swim has taught me more
about myself than another. The Catalina Channel swim, for instance, was huge for
me because it showed me that I could swim twenty-one miles and that I could
train for bigger goals. But that was just the beginning. And there was so much
more that followed.
Q: How can readers stay current on what you're
A: A good friend is building a Web site for me
that will give readers updates on the book tour, lecture tour, foreign book
tour, and swims. Visit LynneCox.org to find out more about Lynne Cox.]
Q: You started writing Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long-Distance
Swimmer when you were in collegealmost twenty-five years ago. What was your
vision for the book?
A: When I first started writing Swimming to Antarctica, I had a completely different vision from what the
book has become. Initially, John Ridland, my English professor at University of
California-Santa Barbara, who happened to be a swimmer, suggested I write about
my experience of swimming across the English Channel. He told me that he didn't
know of any books written about the English Channel swim, and I was eager to
attempt to do that. I took an advanced writing class from Steven Allaback, his
friend, and wrote the first draft of the book during my senior year. It was then
only the story of swimming the English Channel, and the title was very simply:
Across the English Channel. It also included my Catalina Channel swims and some
of my training methods. The year after I graduated from college, I sent the book
off to publishers in New York City and received form letter rejections. So I
went back and revised the book, over and over again, adding more chapters,
changing the vision for the story, adding more stories, more depth, more
philosophy, and more excitement. It was at times really discouraging. I rewrote
the book from start to finish eleven times, went to three book conventions, and
had the book pass through the hands of four agents. Finally, it was accepted at
the twenty-one-year mark. Now, looking back at the process, I see how much
better the book has become, how the vision has shifted, and how it's as much
about ideas as swims. It's about life, love, hope, and belief in one's dreams.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher.
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