Saturday, April 13, 2013

Runner's Bookshelf Book Review - "Swimming to Antarctica" by Lynne Cox


Swimming to Antarctica b Lynne Cox

Other than Olympic swimmers such as Marc Spitz, Michael Phelps, or Ian Thorpe, the only famous swimmer I could have named was Diana Nyad. I have hazy childhood memories of a woman slathered with lanolin and swimming in a shark cage... which I guess i assumed meant she swam the English Channel or something. Not to discount Diana Nyad's amazing -- and continuing! -- achievements... but how is it that I never heard of Lynne Cox, an American who, at the age of FIFTEEN, got the world record for swimming the English Channel? Not the women's record, mind you... the world record?

In Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long-Distance Swimmer, Lynne Cox recounts her life in the water, starting as a chubby nine-year-old who decided to keep swimming through a storm when her teammates wanted to go indoors. She described that workout as if she were "swimming through a giant bowl of icy tapioca" while "hailstones floated to the water's surface and rolled around my body as I swam through them." Then she finally got out of the pool, one of her teammates' mothers rushed over to her to wrap her in a towel. As she tried to warm the girl up, the woman leaned down and said, "Someday, Lynne, you're going to swim across the English Channel."

It kind of took my breath away, but from the moment she said it, I believed that it could happen... Even though I was only nine years old at the time, I somehow knew that one day I would swim the English Channel.

When Cox was twelve, her parents moved their family to Los Angeles so the four kids could work with a new swimming coach -- Don Gambril, the head coach for the United States Olympic Team. On her first day with the new coach, she is introduced to Hans Fassnacht and Gunnar Larson, who both medaled in the 1972 Olympics.

Getting to talk to them was pretty heady stuff. But somehow I managed to reply, "Thank you. Someday I hope I will be able to swim in your lane." I was a chubby, awkward, twelve-year-old girl without any intense training and with no reason to believe I could ever be as good as they were. I was only filled with hope and promise.

Over time Cox got stronger and faster, but her coach noticed something others hadn't -- that she was stronger at the end of a workout than at the beginning. So he encouraged her to enter an open-water race, the Seal Beach Rough Water Swim. She entered the three-mile race:

And I swam as if I had learned to fly. I raced across the water. My strokes felt powerful, and I felt strong, alive, as if awakened for the first time. Nothin in the swimming pool gave me this pleasure. I was free, moving fast, feeling the waves lifting and embracing me, and I couldn't believe how happy I was. It was like I had gone from a cage into limitless possibilities.... There were no walls, no black lines to follow, no lane lines or backstroke flags; I was surrounded by the wide-open sea and the infinite sky filled with puffy white clouds.

The ended up winning the women's race -- coming in third overall. An hour later she entered the two-mile race, which she also won. She was a little disappointed to only place second in the one-mile. ("I wanted to do better, but another girl was faster.") A few days later, she joined an open-water swimming team, and later was part of the first group of teenagers to make the swim from Catalina Island to the mainland, a distance of 26 miles.

The summer after that successful swim, Cox went to England and swam the English Channel. A year later she went back to swim it again, regaining the world record at the age of 16. Cox kept seeking out -- and completing -- more epic swims, including across the Strait of Magellan, around the Cape of Good Hope, across the Strait of Gibraltar, and across the Bosphorus.

My favorite swim in the book was across the Cook Strait, the water between the north and the south islands of New Zealand. During her attempt, her crew received hundreds of radio calls from New Zealanders to cheer her on, while captains of fishing boats radioed water conditions, Air New Zealand pilots radioed weather updates, and a cross-channel ferry came near so the passengers could cheer for her. But Cox was struggling. Several hours into her swim, however, and when she was feeling as if she couldn't go on, she and her crew were surrounded by several dozen dolphins, who swam and leapt around them for more than an hour. When the dolphins left, Cox had made progress and the South Island had come into clearer view.

When she struggled again, ten hours into the swim, a smaller group of dolphins reappeared... as they did again during the final, dangerous stretch to the shore. And when she cleared the water, after twelve hours and two and a half minutes of swimming, she could hear the dolphins chattering.

One of her big dreams was to swim the Bering Strait, from Little Diomede, which belongs to the United States, to Big Diomede, which belonged to the U.S.S.R. Despite being only 2.7 miles apart, the water temperature -- between 30 and 40 degrees -- made it extremely unlikely that anyone could survive a swim of that distance. Even colder, of course, were relations between the two nations in 1975.

Cox spent the next twelve years working toward this swim -- writing letters every day to try to get approval from the two governments, finding sponsors, and preparing her body to survive such cold temperatures. And in August, 1987, she eventually got permission and made the swim, receiving praise from both Gorbachev and Reagan for her actions.

Finally, the book details Cox's swim of over a mile to Antarctica in 32-degree water, arriving on a beach filled with penguins.

So, why a book about long-distance swimming on a blog about running? Because Lynne Cox is one of the most inspirational writers I have ever read. Throughout the book she doesn't hold back from talking about her fears, the times she wanted to quit, the times she felt she couldn't go on. But each time she was able to dig deep, to reach within herself to find more strength. And her dogged pursuit of permission for the Bering Strait swim seems the perfect model for achieving your dreams -- just believe in yourself, surround yourself with other people who believe in you, and keep at it.


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