Swimmer Talks about her Career, Cold Water, Swimming with Penguins

Oct 25, 2013

Fairbanks, AK -  Jumping into the icy waters off the coast of Antarctica isn’t for everyone. But IT IS for open water swimmer, Lynne Cox. “There was a ship load of people there and they were there as tourists and they had no idea why I was there until I did the swim," she laughs as she remembers her swim.  "So it was really funny to come ashore but at the same time there were penguins that came down to the water and jumped in a swam under the boats around me and greeted us as we reached the shore,” she says. 

Lynne Cox loves to swim, but she doesn’t like to swim in a pool.  “When you swim in the pool you sort of know you’re going to make it to the other side.  It’s sort of a given,” she says.  Cox became an open-water swimmer at the age of fourteen.  Four decades later, you can find her paddling and stroking her way through the open ocean off the coast of California. “It’s so much more creative.  I mean you have to figure things out," she says.  "You have to look at what the tides are doing you have to look at what the weather’s doing.  You have to be in tune with it as you’re swimming and aware of what’s going to go on next.”

Cox was one of the first teenagers to swim the Catalina Island Channel.  Her resume includes swims through Cook Strait in New Zealand and the English Channel.  Swimming took her across Siberia’s Lake Baikal, Germany’s Spree River and she’s also crossed Lake Titicaca between Bolivia and Peru… and that’s just the short list.  “You know, you just don’t know what you’re going to experience each day when you get in," says Cox, "and the big part of just getting ion is going ‘Oh my gosh! The water is cold and I know it’s going to be cold and I have to get in it and then once I get going I’ll warm up.’”

Most people think water under 80 degrees is cold. When Cox thinks about cold water, she’s lucky if it’s half that temperature.  In 2003, she swam a speedy 1.2 miles off the coast of Antarctica.  That water was 32 degrees. “You lose 80 percent of heat through your head and so I decided that for the first part of the swim, I would try to swim head-up like a water polo player to be able to maintain my core temperature to keep my internal temperature warmer for a longer period of time.” Cox didn’t wear a dry suit.  She didn’t even don a wet suit.  But it wasn’t her first cold water swim.  Back in 1987, she slid into the waters of the Bering Strait in a lycra swim suit, latex cap and swim goggles.  “It was about the human reach and the human touch.  To reach out to the Soviets to have them grab my hand and pull me out of the water, that’s what that swim was all about and I thought if I wore a wet suit, it was about technology, it wasn’t about doing everything you mentally, spiritually, physically can to open a border between two countries.”

Over the years, Cox has taken flack for her physique.  An article in May in ESPN’s The Magazine depicts her “as the kindly neighbor who walks everyone’s dogs when they’re on vacation.”  While she admits she doesn’t have the trim, chiseled build of an Olympic swimmer, researchers have studied her body’s rare ability to withstand cold for decades.  “In order for me to do the things I’ve done, I’ve had to be extremely strong and powerful in addition to having some body fat, but I don’t think that’s all it is.”

She says it’s about her mindset.

“Before I did the swim in Antarctica, I went back into the cabin and sat down and looking out the window tried to figure out the course that I might swim and I had more core temperature taken and it was up to 102 degrees," she says, "so, I realize my mind, my body they knew I was about to swim in 32 degree water and it was preparing for that moment.”

Her coldest swims have been off the coast of Greenland, where she was chasing another passion back in 2007. Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian Arctic explorer was her childhood hero.  She’s even written a book about him.  “It was also fantastic to be able to study Amundsen and to see the challenges he’s faced, like waiting for the ice to break and how difficult it was to be locked in the ice and that anticipation of someday they’d be able to sail again and I sort of had the same happen when I went to swim in Pond Inlet off of Baffin Island.” 87 years after arctic sea ice thwarted Amundsen’s Northwest Passage Expedition, it also stalled Cox.  She waited nearly a week before she could plunge into the 28 degree water and follow parts of Amundsen’s Route.  

She holds 57 open water records and there’s even an asteroid named for her. She’s still swims, but never in a pool.