Transcript for Lynne Cox on "Swimming to Antarctica"


Jim Fleming:  To Lynne Cox, swimming is a way of life. And the harder the better.  At age 14 she swam to Catalina Island from mainland California.  At 15 she broke the men’s and women’s records for swimming the English Channel.  That was just the beginning.  Since then she’s gone on to conquer the treacherous Strait of Magellan and the shark infested waters ringing the Cape of Good Hope.  Then she decided to try the impossible, the icy waters of Antarctica.  She writes about her career as a long distance swimmer in the book Swimming of Antarctica.  She told Steve Paulson that the waters of Antarctica present many challenges.

Lynne Cox:  The currents and tides aren’t mapped.  They’ve been studying down there for 17 years and people still don’t know which way the currents move, and usually when you do a channel swim that’s one the basic things that you figure out ahead of time.  Also, the weather there is so unable.  It can go from a very calm to 60 knot winds within 15 or 20 minutes.  There’s also the problem of ice.  You can have glaciers snap off and become icebergs and if you’re swimming around them it can be a bad thing.  So those are some of the challenges, but also beyond that there was the wildlife.  There are orcas, killer whales, but also there were leopard seals that are 10 feet long and weigh up to 1,000 pounds and they can be aggressive, and actually a British researcher was killed by one about three months after I was down there.

Steve Paulson:  So you like this kind of danger is what you’re telling me?

Cox:  I like this kind of exploration.  I like the idea of pushing the body beyond what’s been done and sort of feeling out what human beings can do and how far that reach can be.  Also, the other idea is that you’re sort of jumping into this unexplored territory where people haven’t been before in a bathing suit, cap and goggles.  Just the sensation of it is so extraordinary, to be in water that’s 32 degrees and realize that it feels so viscous because it is so thick because it is so dense and it’s just weird to have that kind of experience, but more than that the water there is so clear.  You can see as if it’s like moving through sky.

Paulson:  To think you were going to swim in this water, were you scared?

Cox:  There was a big element of fear in this whole thing because I knew that no one had done this before and I trained for it and I had done swims that were in water as cold as 38 degrees, but nothing like this before, so it was a huge challenger.

Paulson:  Now you had actually been training for this particular swim in the Antarctic for two years.  What did you do to get ready for this extremely cold water?

Cox:  I did things I’d never done before.  I sort of became a sprinter.  Instead of training and going four or five hour swims I wound up doing an hour in my folks backyard pool, swimming head up and going as fast as I could for an hour, basically trying to simulate what I would be doing, something similar to in Antarctica.  The biggest thing I really needed to do was learn how to swim more with my head up and at the same time have the power to move through the water.

Paulson:  Now the reason for swimming with your head up is it’s just too cold, you lose too much body heat if you have your head in the water?

Cox:  That’s exactly right.  You lose up to 80% of your head.  You know that being in Wisconsin.  So, the idea was that if I could swim head up I would be able to prolong my ability to stay in the cold, but at some point you get tired because you’re pressing your entire body against the water.  You’re sort of almost swimming upright, so in order to compensate for that I had to do a whole lot more weight training, and I actually worked with a trainer who had been a collegiate wrestler who helped me work on building upper body strength.

Paulson:  Did you also just spend time in the cold, whether it’s cold water or cold air, just kind of hanging out to try to get used to it?

Cox:  Yes, I went to Ushuaia, Argentina, at the very tip of Argentina, and trained in the water there where the water temperature was about 40 degrees.  Actually, it was so cold that it would take me pretty much all day to psych up to go in for my work out, and then I sort of put my clothes down on the beach and hopefully they wouldn’t blow into the water.  The winds there are between 40 and 50 knots and it was just hard getting in and yet I knew I had to do this to prepare for the swim in Antarctica.

Paulson:  Now we’ve been talking about some of the preparation you did to get ready for this swim in the Antarctic.  One thing would be to figure out what you’d do when you got out of the water because there was a real danger of hypothermia and these temperatures could kill an ordinary person in not very many minutes.

Cox:  Yeah, actually I found out from a professor at the University of Edmonton that the normal response that’s falling into water that’s below 40 degrees is that you’ll start to seize up.  After six or eight minutes you won’t be able to have the muscular impulses, the normal muscular impulses to make the muscles move.  So he thought this was just astonishing that I could even swim in that water, but the biggest concern I had really was for afterwards because when you’re no longer creating heat through muscle activity you start to get cold.  Then you start to bring in the cool blood from the exterior body and put it into your core of your body and you get what’s called after drop and so your temperature starts to plummet and that’s when you can have really big problems where your heart can go into arrhythmia or something worse.  So what we did instead was to get a scarf and a polypropylene shirt and pants and a friend of mine sewed pockets into the pockets were on either side of my neck, under my armpits and then right near the hip bones and we put those hot packs in those areas, those things that you use when you go skiing and you want to warm up your fingers or your toes, that’s what we did.  So when I finished the swim I put those clothes on, but I also had my doctor friends who basically acted like penguins and moved in really, really close to me and hugged me and gave me their body heat and I sort of shivered for an hour and got my temperature back up to normal.

Paulson:  Now it’s worth pointing out that you are a medical marvel.

Cox:  Yes.

Paulson:  For some reasons temperatures that would kill a lot of other people don’t for you.  And scientists have also tested your body, your physiology.  What have they discovered about you?

Cox:  They’ve discovered that I am able to close down the circulation to the peripheral area to the skin and to the fingers and toes and hands and feet really rapidly and keep it closed down.  If you took an untrained persona and put them in the cold you’ve have that response initially and then at some point the body would say “You know, we need to get oxygen out to those tissues” and so the body would start sending surges of blood out there and then bring that cool blood back to the core and that in turn would cool down the core or the center of the body.  But my body basically says “Lose the hands, lose the feet, keep the core warm and keep the brain and lungs and heart going” and it also will sort of send out a minute amount of blood to the extremities at the fingertip level and at the toe level.

Paulson:  OK.  So you had your practice swim.  You realized you could do that.  Now it was time for the real one, for the whole one mile touching land on Antarctica.  What happened?

Cox:  Well, we took the ship down to an area called Paradise Harbor and we were looking for beaches where I could land.  There aren’t that many beaches in Antarctica along the peninsula.  There are areas that are huge glaciers that just sort of slide right down to the ocean and you can’t swim near those glaciers because you’re afraid of the falling icebergs.  So we kept looking for places where we could land, but there weren’t many because the wind had shifted and the icebergs had sort of accumulated in different areas and a lot of them were the beaches.  So we searched for probably half the morning until we came to a place called Neko Harbor and it’s this just beautiful area where the beach is maybe an 800 yard wide strip that’s sort of terracotta stone and there are glaciers on either side of it.  We saw that the weather was fairly calm and decided that it was a good day for a swim.

Paulson:  So you just hopped in the water and did your mile.

Cox:  That was pretty much it.  I mean, there’s really no time to sort of quibble or second guess or wonder.  The crew had been through the test swim.  They knew what they needed to do, so I went into the cabin to sort of sit down and focus and actually I got some temperature measurements before and after the swim.

So we found that taking the core temperature before I even started the swim, my temperature was up to 102.2 and then when I finished the swim it was down to 95.5 and within an hour it was back up to normal.

Paulson:  How difficult was that swim?

Cox:  Really, really, really, really hard.  It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, mostly because I had done the test swim only a day before and it took a huge amount out of me and also I had some nerve damage from that first swim so I realized that my first line of defense of being able to tell how I was doing on the peripheral area, you know, on the skin level was gone and so that would mean that I’d have to be even more fine tuned of what was going on and even more aware of what was going on around me.  But it was also hard because I really didn’t like shivering so hard at the end of the first test swim.  Your body has to work awfully hard when it’s that cold to get warm again, and I think I was working as hard shivering as I had done during that first test swim.  I actually thought “You know what?  I swam 9/10 of a mile.  Maybe that should count as the Antarctic mile”.  This is all true.  I thought “Oh no,”and then I thought “You know, I’ve come this far and this would be short of the goal and I really should go for the mile and I really wanted to swim to the continent, no, not the subcontinent”, and this was 32 degree water, and it was just that degree more.  So, I think I just decided that it was time to do it when the conditions were right and we went forward.

Paulson:  Now it sounds just miserable.  I mean, it’s basically a survival test, can you do it?  Is there anything at all enjoyable about this?

Cox:  It’s not miserable and it’s not a survival test.  I mean, those are elements in it, but it’s also the idea that you are jumping into unknown waters, that you are swimming through water that is so clear that you can see penguins jumping in towards the end of the swim and swimming with you.  You can see them porpoising through the water and see their water bubbles coming up all around you and you are sort of in a world that nobody else has really been in, in this way before or maybe even wanted to ever do it that way.

Paulson:  So what did it feel like at the end when you touched land?  Did you have this great sense of triumph?

Cox:  I had this great sense of triumph because it was as if we had done something never done and I had a group of people around me who had shared in this idea and this dream and had extended themselves to help me do what I wanted to do and I felt like it was an achievement that we really all shared.

Paulson:  Now you’ve said that this was your hardest swim you’ve ever done, but you’ve done some pretty hard swims in earlier years.  I mean, there was one for instance down in New Zealand where after you, what, a few hours, you were further back from where you had started from because the waves were so big?

Cox:  Actually that’s exactly right.  I’d been swimming between the north and south islands of New Zealand and there were two storms converging and we weren’t aware of it because we didn’t have the weather satellite stuff that we have now.  So, after five hours of swimming I was further from the finish than I had started.  The current had carried me around the north island and I was really fighting to go on.

Paulson:  But you did go on.

Cox:  Well, I did go on because I had a school of dolphins who came in and started swimming with me, with the people in the boats.  They were all around our boats and beside the paddler near me the water visibility was about 50 feet and you could look down and see dolphins swimming around dolphins and they would suddenly leap out of the water and then spin and spiral and click and squeak and chatter and they stayed with me for about an hour and in that time I sort of lost the sense of “I can’t do this anymore” so I kept going and periodically throughout the next, I don’t know how many, the swim wound up taking 12 hour and two minutes.  But throughout the swim the dolphins would come back in moments like I didn’t think I could go any further and actually toward the end of the swim they wound up guiding us into an area where I could land on shore.

Paulson:  And the story then of what happened throughout New Zealand.  IT sounds like it almost turned into a national celebration that you had done this swim.

Cox:  Actually while I was swimming and having so many difficulties people throughout New Zealand began calling out to the ship’s radio to say “˜Lynn, we believe in you.  Keep going.”  There were Boy Scouts from Christ Church and beekeepers from Wellington and people all over the country, even as far as the Bay of Islands to the north were calling and saying “Keep going” and actually the Prime Minister of New Zealand called and said “You have the country of New Zealand behind you”.  So it was really extraordinary and actually during the swim there were a couple ships that went across Cook Straits and they came in and raised the American flag and tooted their horns and basically showed their support.  So by the time I finished the swim, the whole country, the Land of Hillary, knew about my swim and then the next day church bells were rung throughout the country at noon.

Paulson:  I can’t imagine that.

Cox:  It was wonderful.  It made me realize that a swim can be so much more than just an athletic venture, that it can be a way to bring people together and through that you get so much strength but also they share in that excitement of being able to succeed at it.

Fleming:  Lynne Cox is a long distance swimmer and the author of the book Swimming to Antarctica.  Steve Paulson spoke with her.

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