SI Vault
 
The Aquatic Ambassador
Caroline Alexander
October 17, 1994
To bring nations together, Lynne Cox swims across troubled waters
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
October 17, 1994

The Aquatic Ambassador

To bring nations together, Lynne Cox swims across troubled waters

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

For Lynne Cox it had been a productive if frustrating few months. After extensive negotiations she was in Washington, D.C., to attend meetings with representatives of the Israeli, Egyptian and Jordanian embassies. Her agenda: to discuss the logistics of her planned mid-October swim around the Gulf of 'Aqaba, a slender tongue of water that extends inland from the Red Sea and is shared uneasily by those three nations.

Cox, 37, is one of the greatest endurance swimmers in the world. Her resume is comprehensive: a 12�-hour crossing from Catalina Island to the California coast at the age of 14; an English Channel record at 15; a 20-mile swim across New Zealand's Cook Strait (which she was the first woman to achieve) at 17; a swim across the Strait of Magellan in 44� water at 19. In short, Cox has swum across some of the earth's most treacherous bodies of water.

As the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus observed, one can never step into the same river twice—its constant flux ensures that little about it remains the same. Similarly, vagaries of weather, tides and currents ensure that no two swimmers can make the same crossing, and an alltime-best open-water swim is difficult to claim. Still, one of Cox's feats stands out from others of its kind: her crossing of the Bering Strait from the U.S. to the Soviet Union in 1987. On that occasion Cox, protected by neither a wet suit nor insulating grease, swam for more than two hours in water that ranged from 38� to 44�, temperatures that few humans could survive beyond 30 minutes.

The Bering swim was remarkable for political as well as physiological reasons. The waters between Siberia and Alaska had been closed since 1948, and it took Cox 11 years of patient but persistent diplomacy to achieve her dream. Thus when, in early August 1987, Cox emerged on the Soviet shore blue-tinged and shivering and fell into the arms of a delegation of Inuit well-wishers, she could boast of being the first person to have crossed those waters—in or out of a ship—in nearly 40 years. The historic impact of this feat was recognized at the highest level when Mikhail Gorbachev, speaking at the White House in December 1987 on the occasion of the signing of the INF missile treaty, said, "It look one brave American by the name of Lynne Cox just two hours to swim from one of our countries to the other.... She proved by her courage how closely to each other our peoples live."

Though she swam competitively as a student at UC Santa Barbara, Cox had from an early age shown a decided preference for swimming in open water over churning out laps in a chlorinated pool.

"I always had this dream of swimming the English Channel," she says. "Always." That goal was accomplished in short order: In 1972, at 15, Cox made the England-to- France crossing in nine hours and 57 minutes—nearly four hours faster than the previous women's record and nearly 30 minutes faster than the men's mark. The following year she bettered her time by 20 minutes.

That behind her, Cox started looking for new waters to conquer. Her pursuit and eventual accomplishment of more-challenging goals taught her that she could achieve more than personal records by swimming and that even the most politically troubled waters can be traversed.

Two decades of aquatic diplomacy have prepped Cox for her trip to the Middle East. Still, as many heads of state have learned, diplomacy is a full-time job, and progress is slow. Final permission for the Gulf of 'Aqaba swim was not obtained from all three countries until late September, more than a month after her trip to Washington and disconcertingly close to the date of her departure for Israel.

Cox's diplomatic work is also unsalaried. All of her ventures have been run on shoestring budgets and financed by her own earnings, some corporate support and the contributions of friends. In addition to faxing and phoning the relevant embassies, navies and local sports associations, the Jordanian royal palace, Egyptian diplomatic offices and a welter of contacts in Israel, Cox has had to continue working as a private swimming instructor and part-time lecturer—and somehow find the time to train.

"I've been training all along, but the training has been mostly in the gym," she says. "Now I'm really increasing the water time, and I'll do a couple of four-hour swims in the ocean.

Continue Story
1 2