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Her first swimming coach said, "Lynne Cox is not fast or stylish. She doesn't kick properly and she's not competitive." He was not being cruel, just realistic. A Dover cabdriver, upon hearing that Lynne Cox planned to swim the English Channel, added another view. "She's too fat," he said. And Lynne offers her own candid analysis. "I don't kick. I do have lazy legs. I just move my feet a little to take away the drag." Yet at the age of 18, Lynne Cox, a California high school senior, is the fastest Channel swimmer in the world. So much for analysis.
In a few days now—these things are always inexact because of tides and weather—Lynne will attempt her toughest swim so far, the 16-mile Cook Strait between New Zealand's North and South islands. In the long history of point-to-point swimming only three men have made it across that channel, where currents are fierce and sharks abound. The odds against success are long. Why even attempt it? To understand what drives Lynne to such watery excesses, one must go back a bit.
The Cox family moved West from New Hampshire five years ago so the kids could swim year round. And they all do: Lynne's sisters Ruth, 12, and Laura, 15, swim competitively and play water polo. (Laura is the only girl on the Los Alamitos High School water polo team.), Brother Dave, 20, attends Brigham Young University on a swimming scholarship.
Lynne also has done some competitive swimming in regulation pools, but she doesn't like the confinement and routine, the lanes and pool edges, swimming those same 50 meters back and forth. And she doesn't like the absence of nature—no weeds slipping through her fingers, no jellyfish to dodge, no pelicans with whom to develop rapport. Not to mention the absence of success. "I get tired of 10- and 11-year-old kids passing me," she says.
So in July 1972 she swam the English Channel in nine hours, 57 minutes—26 minutes faster than any man or woman before. Her record lasted just three weeks. Davis Hart, another American, beat it by 13 minutes. Naturally Lynne went back the next summer, slipped into the water at Shakespeare Beach and made the crossing in a new world-record time of 9:36. That one still stands.
Distance swimmers most often perform at night, when the sea tends to be calm and the wind low. Calm and low they were on Sept. 10, when Lynne took her turn. She had made the crossing once before, when she was 14. That was her first swim over three miles, and she had done it with five friends. This time Lynne had two world-record English Channel swims behind her. And this time, too, she would be going after Dave's record.
Lynne waded into calm water off Catalina at 11:21 p.m. and began to swim. She had never seen a night so black. Thick fog covered the channel and made it spooky. The "red tide"—a seasonal population explosion among billions of one-celled plantlike animals—phosphoresced. In the distance, the light of the Bandido, Lynne's 55-foot escort boat, probed faintly through the fog. The murk was intimidating, too intimidating. From the water Lynne yelled that she wanted to talk to her parents.
Dr. and Mrs. Albert Cox left the Bandido in a small boat and started toward Lynne, who was some 500 yards away. Immediately they became lost in the fog. They began to circle, and two hours and six minutes after Lynne had begun swimming they found her, sobbing, done in.
The generally disorienting effects of the foggy night could be blamed for the failure, as could overtraining, the pressure of publicity and the lack of someone alongside talking to Lynne and keeping her swimming. But Lynne says, "I think it was just a lack of confidence in myself at the time." Her father agrees. "Attitude is 75% of distance swimming," he says. "She just didn't have things straight in her mind."