Recently Kim Chambers, a New Zealander, made the news here by swimming from the Farallon Islands to the Golden Gate Bridge. A marathon swim of 30 miles of shark-infested waters. Something only four other people (all men) have done before. Just a few days before her successful swim, her swimming partner Simon Dominguez had to stop his own attempt (in the reverse direction) when a great white started circling him. Sadly he was within sight of the city at the time!
One amazing thing about these swimmers is that they do these long-distance swims in just a swimsuit. Not a wetsuit or any protective gear. Just a swimsuit, googles and swim cap. They are not allowed to touch the boat or anyone. Any food or drink to be consumed must be thrown to them from the boats accompanying them. Or their swims could be disqualified.
Reading about Chambers’ successful attempt and Dominguez’s sadly unsuccessful one made me want to write about a recent read of Swimming to Antarctica by open water swimmer Lynne Cox.
Lynne Cox is one amazing woman. As a young teenager she already had two channel swims under her belt. In 1971 she crossed the Catalina Island Channel in California with a group of young swimmers. She crossed the English Channel in 1972 and 1973 when she was just 15 years old. Not long after that , she went on to become the first person to swim the Straits of Magellan in Chile, and to swim around the Cape of Good Hope.
Then in 1987 she made history by swimming the Bering Strait from Little Diomede in Alaska to Big Diomede in the Soviet Union. This was during the Cold War so things were tense. Everyone was suspicious, she couldn’t get any answers until one day things just clicked and she did her historical swim, a swim mentioned by Mikhail Gorbachev himself.
She even swam the Spree River between East and West Germany, which once had mines, razor wire and sheet metal in the river, and which the Germans weren’t sure if everything was removed.
And then, as the title of the book suggests, she swam to Antarctica where icebergs and the freezing cold water were big dangers, oh and so were the killer whales. She even had to protect her teeth and eardrums from the freezing cold water.
“I looked down into the water; it was a bright blue-gray and so clear that it appeared as if I were swimming through air. The viscosity of the water was different, too; it was thicker than any I had ever swum in. It felt like I was swimming through gelato.”
Thirty-three, thirty-two degrees Farenheit. Or 0 degrees Celsius.
“I began to notice that the cold was pressurizing my body like a giant tourniquet. It was squeezing the blood from the exterior part of my body and pushing it into the core. Everything felt tight. Focus on your breath, I told myself. Slow it down. Let it fill your lungs. You’re not going to be able to make it if you keep going at this rate.“
One thing that amazed me throughout the first half of the book is the support she received from her parents, as well as her determination to set herself these challenges and accomplish them. I mean, how many 15 year olds do you know who say to their parents that they want to break the English Channel record?
“They believed age was important, but they also believed that you could achieve almost anything in life with hard work and talent. I was lucky that they were open-minded about this, because I’m not sure what I would have done if they had told me I was too young; I probably would have worked on them until they couldn’t stand it any longer and finally gave in. They knew I was determined; my father called it stubborn. Still, they also knew how important it was to have dreams and goals and a path in life. And they instilled this in me.”
Her story is simply told. Sometimes quite intensely so. Plenty of times I want to stop her and say, hey, relax you’re only a teenager! Do you really need to cross yet another channel? But apparently she does. Although the why isn’t exactly something Cox really puts into words. And for an average person like me, who is happy to be in a swimming pool (and honestly, a bit terrified at swimming in the sea) and the only marathon I want to take part in is a reading marathon, I just have to sit back and admire what she – and all these other open-water swimmers – have done. Bravo.