Swimming to Antarctica: A Recommended Book
Lynne Cox, author of Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long-Distance Swimmer, strikes me as a kind of ideal heroine for this month in which I’m writing about quest. There’s a kind of purity—a single-mindedness—to her narrative that has a certain appeal. She’s one of those rare people who discovered her own personal quest—her purpose in life—at the age of nine. And then she had the good fortune, and the good sense, and the persistence, to be able to carry this out.
One summer morning, as she tells it, and when she was only nine years old, she found herself in an icy-cold swimming pool in Manchester, New Hampshire, swimming laps in the middle of a storm. She was there by choice. All the other swimmers in her club had begged the coach to get out of the water, leaping at his alternative proposal of two hours of calisthenics in the locker room. This was a serious swim club. Those children who had fled the cold water for the locker room could look forward to upwards of 500 sit-ups, 200 push-ups, and 500 leg extensions.
Lynne Cox stayed in the water. When it began to hail, she stopped her laps and crouched in a corner next to the steps and covered her face with her hands. When the hail changed over to heavy rain she went back to swimming laps, entirely alone in the pool, hailstones floating around her in what she describes as a “giant bowl of icy tapioca.” She wasn’t one of the fastest swimmers on the team. She was, by her own description, chubby, and because she was slower than many of the others, she rarely got a chance to pause at the wall of the pool for breaks the way the others did. What she had was endurance. And a love of the water that was nothing short of extreme. She was nine years old, swimming through ice-water that everyone else had fled, and, rather than being frightened of the storm, she was exhilarated by it:
The pool was no longer a flat, boring rectangle of blue; it was now a place of constant change. . . . That day, I realized that nature was strong, beautiful, dramatic, and wonderful, and being out in the water during that storm made me feel somehow a part of it, somehow connected to it.
A Mrs. Milligan saw the tail end of this three-hour swim from her car in the parking lot. She was the mother of another girl on the team, a fast girl who had already qualified for nationals. When Lynne Cox finally climbed out of the pool, Mrs. Milligan met her with a large towel. She rubbed Lynne’s back with the towel, at the same time speaking into her ear: “Someday, Lynne, you’re going to swim across the English Channel.”
Lynne Cox did swim across the English Channel. A mere six years later, when she was only fifteen, she set a world record, swimming the channel in nine hours and fifty-seven minutes. A few years later she swam across the Cook Strait in New Zealand. Not long after, she became the first person in the world to swim the Strait of Magellan, a body of water between the tip of Chile and the island of Tierra del Fuego. The water temperature was forty-two degrees. A light snow was falling. She next swam around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. And in August 1987, when she was thirty years old, she swam across the Bering Strait, a 2.7-mile gap between Alaska and the then-Soviet Union. The swim took two hours and six minutes. The water temperature at one point dropped to thirty-eight degrees. As she crossed the International Date Line she was met by a Soviet boat which escorted her for the remainder of her swim on to her landing—a snowbank in the Soviet Union. Four months later, President Gorbachev, in a televised speech, after signing the INF Missile Treaty with President Reagan, mentioned her swim as a courageous gesture that had demonstrated what was possible between the two countries. And some fifteen years later, in search of a yet more extreme challenge, Lynne Cox swam the first Antarctic mile, swimming twenty minutes through thirty-two degree water (!) from an offshore boat to the coast of Antarctica, and providing her with the title of a New Yorker article as well as the memoir that grew out of that article.
The record of her accomplishments is clearly impressive. She offers here a quintessential story of purpose pursued—and realized. But what makes this memoir come alive are the physical details. It’s as if certain moments of her swims made a deep and lasting impression and she’s been able, through language, to take us along with her and give us a sense of what it was like. Here, for instance, she describes a few moments from that swim across the English Channel at fifteen:
By seven a.m. my arms were burning. They felt like I had been lifting twenty-five pound dumbbells for hours. My neck was sore, as I had been raising my head up to see the French coast, now a dark outline on the horizon. . . . I asked for an oatmeal cookie. I was so hungry. For hours I had been dreaming about eating a real American hamburger and a chocolate milkshake. My mother tossed me a cookie. My coordination was off, and I completely missed it. She threw a second. I picked the slightly mushy snack out of the sea and ate it quickly.
For more than an hour I didn’t look up at shore. When I did, we had drifted farther north, and Cape Gris-Nez had slid more to the south. This was hell, liquid hell. I began reaching for more energy [than] I’d ever known I had. It was from all those cold mornings when I didn’t want to get in and work out, but did anyway. It was from all those years of training when I was tired but pushed myself through the workout. It was from all those people who believed in me. I pictured the faces of my family, my friends, my neighbors, my teammates, everyone who said, [italics]You can do this, and I sprinted. My breath burned in my throat. My arms were on fire, moving faster than they ever had. I lifted my head. We were making progress.
She doesn’t pretend it was easy. I like that about the book too. (Are any quests of significance easy?) In her case, there’s that mushy oatmeal cookie. Those heart-sinking moments of drifting off course. There’s progress, but it’s with her breath burning in the back of her throat.