The spring weather is often nasty on Alamitos Bay, about 20 miles south of Los Angeles. Dirty gray storm clouds whip low across the sky, the wind churns up whitecaps and the water temperature is a chilly 66°F.
So no one in his or her right mind goes swimming. No one…except 30-year-old Lynne Cox. She’s been out there practicing her ocean crawl for 45 minutes. As she emerges from the surf, a stroller on the beach snaps his head around for an amazed second look.
“Good lord,” he cries. “How’s the water?”
“Too hot!” Cox yells back, as she peels off her bathing cap and shakes her hair free. “Way too hot!”
Cox just grins at the guy. She’s widely considered the world’s best long distance swimmer in cold water, and for her, 66°F is like a hot tub turned on high. Indeed, today she’s in training for her coldest, most dangerous challenge yet: This August, Cox plans to tackle a frigid 2.7-mile stretch of the Bering Strait between Alaska’s Little Diomede Island and the Big Diomede Island off Soviet Siberia. Although her zaftig 5’6″, 180-pound frame is well insulated, the water will be so cold—between 34°F and 39°F—that each breath will make her chest ache. Her ordeal figures to take 2½ hours or more, and no one, it’s believed, has ever survived that long in waters that cold without a wet suit.
“Immersion in water colder than 40°F would kill the average person in about 30 minutes,” explains John Troup, director of sports medicine for U.S. Swimming, governing body for American water sports.
Of course, Lynne Cox is no more the average swimmer than Jack Nicklaus is the average golfer. At age 15 she swam the English Channel, breaking both the men’s and women’s records. At 18, she plowed through six-foot swells and 40-knot gusts to become the first woman to swim the 13 miles between New Zealand’s North and South Islands. Traversing Alaska’s aptly named Glacier Bay in 1985, Cox had to endure 37°F water for 30 minutes as her guide boat cleared a passage through quarter-inch-thick ice.
To swim the strait dividing the superpowers, though, Cox must overcome a host of physical and mental obstacles. While her spirit might be willing enough, her body often balks. “It’s hard to get into the water,” Cox admits. “The body keeps saying, ‘Gee, this is a dumb thing to do.’ Initially, it just hurts, then you start to go numb.” To psych herself into taking the plunge, “I’ll mentally rehearse the swim 20 times a day,” she says. And once she’s in the water, “I let the feeling surround me. I get in deeper and deeper, feel it get colder and colder. I try not to focus on the pain, but on how I’m going to make my body move.”
The physical danger she faces is hypothermia. When the temperature at the body’s core falls below 94°F, violent shivering sets in. Cardiac arrest can follow. “I would expect a substantial danger of her getting into some cardiac problems,” says Dr. Suk-Ki Hong, a professor of physiology at the State University of New York at Buffalo.
Cox downplays the danger. In a swim across Lake Myvatan in Iceland two years ago she was able to withstand 40°F water for 2½ hours. “You’re not supposed to be able to handle that and survive,” says Cox. “If it looks like I’m going to kill myself,” she adds, shrugging, “I’m not going to do it.” Since hypothermia impairs judgment, Cox will instruct her boat crew to pull her from the water by force if necessary.
She will wear an electronic device allowing her aides to monitor her vital body signs. But Cox’s heavy build is probably her most effective life preserver. “That makes all the difference,” says Dr. Hong, who’s studied the effects of exposure on Japanese and Korean women divers. “Because fat subjects are so well insulated, it’s not unusual to have no change in core temperature during a cold-water swim.”
As her warm-up for the Bering Strait, Cox—who lives with her parents in Los Alamitos—trains six days a week for three hours in the Pacific. Two weeks before the big swim, she will go to Alaska to acclimate herself to the frigid water.
Unlike most long distance swimmers, she won’t slather her body with lanolin to help retain heat. This is not bravado. “If I went into hypothermia and I were covered with grease, it would be really hard to pull me out of the water,” she explains. “Besides, the animal smell from the fat could attract sharks, and I don’t want to be somebody’s breakfast.” She’s taking enough chances as it is.