By Kim Constantinesco

Lynne Cox, 57, most likely knows her own heartbeat better than anyone else knows theirs. That must be what happens when your head is submerged in water for a good chunk of your life. You really find out what makes you tick.

Cox grew up in Los Alamitos, CA and she is the best open water swimmer that has ever graced the planet. She has conquered the most prestigious and treacherous waters in the world.

At 14 years old, Cox swam the 27-mile Catalina Channel as part of a group of teens who became the youngest swimmers to ever accomplish the feat. One year later, Cox swam across the English Channel and broke the men’s and women’s world record with a time of 9 hours and 57 minutes. While most girls were getting their driver’s license at 16, Cox decided to swim he English Channel again and break her own record by over 20 minutes.

“Every swim that I did was huge for me,” Cox said. “Each time I did one swim, I was able to use that as a step to the next place. I realized that if I hadn’t swam the Catalina Channel when I was 14, I don’t think that I would have started to train to swim the English Channel. If I hadn’t swum the English Channel, I don’t think I would have swam the Cook Strait to New Zealand. I never had something else in mind when I was doing one swim.”

“I think that so many athletes have these huge goals and they work physically, mentally, spiritually toward that goal, and then they reach it and it’s like ‘Now what?'” Cox said.

Just reading the rest of her swimming “Now whats?” would make anyone want to run for a pair of arm floaties.

At 17, she swam for five hours with a baby gray whale.

“I was training to swim Catalina the second time and there was a fisherman who ran the bait shop and he told me that the whale lost his mother and I need to stay with the baby until we found his mother,” Cox said. “That was an amazing and magical journey.”

Cox documented the story years later in her book, Grayson.

At 18, she became the first women to swim across the Cook Strait, between the North and South islands of New Zealand. 

A year later, she swam across the Strait of Magellan in 1 hour and 2 minutes in 42-degree Fahrenheit water. For the record, that’s a post-workout ice bath for most athletes.

Then she swam around the Cape of Good Hope, an 8-mile swim, which was enough time for a shark to take an interest in her. The shark came at her with an open mouth before someone from her support boat shot it.

In 1987, Cox asked Soviet leaders to open the border between Russia and the United States for her so she could swim across the Bering Strait. Her 2 hour and 6 minute swim was the first time in 48 years that waterway had been opened.

While Cox says that each swim holds a special place in her heart, that one was truly significant because it helped further the relationship between the two countries during the Cold War.

For [former Soviet statesman Mikhail] Gorbachev and [former U.S. President Ronald] Reagan to recognize that and toast it when they were signing the IRNF [Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces] missile treaty was just so amazing. That’s what motivated me to hang in there for 11 years until I was able to do that.”

A year later, Cox swam across Lake Baikal in Russia and subsequently had a cape named after her.

Then in the early 90’s, she swam from Bolivia to Peru in Lake Titicaca, which is one of the highest lakes in the world at 12,507 feet above sea level.

Perhaps one of Cox’s most famous feats came in 2002 when at she became the first person to swim a mile in Antatctica, where the water was 32 degrees Fahrenheit. The only reason why it wasn’t frozen was because of the current. Her support team knew the most direct route to the hospital like the backs of their hands. After all, most people would die within seconds of falling into water that cold. It took her 25 minutes to complete the swim and months for her to regain feeling in her fingers and toes.

Then, in 2007 Cox threw on her ice goggles again for a swim in Greenland — the coldest water she’s ever done some strokes in at 26.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

Cox doesn’t look like a typical world record setting athlete. She looks more like someone who might work in a library or a bank. However, the shape of her body is her greatest treasure.

There’s a reason researchers at UC Santa Barbara have studied her body in extremely cold water. Unlike other people, her temperature actually rises as she swims in frigid waters.

What many people forget is that air temperature and water temperature have completely different feels. Standing in a park on a 50-degree day is much, much warmer than swimming in 50-degree water. For reference, the average water temperature of a swimming pool is about 76 degrees.

“I was wearing a swimsuit, cap, and goggles, and I really spent years and years to acclimate to be able to swim in that water temperature,” Cox said of her swim in Antarctica.

While Cox has acheived so many great things in the water, her ultimate goal could actually only be achieved on land.

“My dream from the start was to be a writer,” Cox said. “I’ve always wanted to write and I think that swimming allows you to think a lot and write a lot.”

Cox has written five books including New York Times best-seller, Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long Distance Swimmer.

“Lynne Cox writes about swimming the way Saint-Exupery wrote about flying, and one sees how swimming like flying
can stretch the wings of the spirit. – Oliver Sacks wrote about the book  

Cox’s first children’s book, Elizabeth, Queen of the Seas, came out in May.

It’s the story of Elizabeth, a real life elephant seal who found her way into the city of Christchurch, New Zealand. The story was told to Cox while she was in New Zealand. Rather than making her habitat in the ocean with the rest of the elephant seals, Elizabeth opted to hang in one of the city’s roads. Citizens worried that she might cause and accident or get hurt, so they towed her back out to sea. Each and every time, however, Elizabeth swam great distances in order to get back “home.”

“I think I was attracted to her [Elizabeth] because she does long distance swims and I do too,” Cox said. “Hers are longer than mine. I love that she chose to be around people because I think for me, it’s that balance of being out there on my own and thinking, but then loving being around people and ideas and hearing about what they’re doing.”

Cox had never encountered an elephant seal on any of her swims, so doing the research for this book provided her with some extra insight into marine life.

“It’s amazing how their bodies are transformed by the pressures of the water,” Cox said. “There would be so much pressure that their skin would be pushed in so that they could dive extremely deep. They also have vision where they can collect light and see great depths where the water is extremely dark.”

It was easy for Cox to draw a comparison between herself and Elizabeth.

“I just thought Elizabeth has unique physiology that was part of being an elephant seal,” Cox said.

The main message that Cox wanted to get across to children is that it’s okay to be different.

The secondary goal was to get children interested in swimming.

“In large part, it’s because I just think that swimming is a life skill,” Cox said. “It’s one of the most important life skills that anyone could ever be taught. I think the book will put in children’s minds that they can swim, too.”

As for Cox’s future in swimming, like Elizabeth, she’s gone back “home” as well.

“I think right now my goal is to go out for a swim this afternoon in the open water and just enjoy it because that’s how I started out,” Cox said. “I feel like I’m back at that place again. It’s just fun to go and swim in a place where I’ve never swum before just to experience the water and the environment.”

Home truly is where the heart is, and for Cox, her heart is where the water is.