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 gruesome experience?
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 something more.
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 mind.
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 about yourself?
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 doing now?
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. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
Blood at the Root
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