As a chubby nine-year-old, Lynne Cox was the slowest kid in the pool. But she loved swimming, so she kept plugging away at it. When the coach ordered her class out of the water because a storm was brewing, she got permission to keep swimming. When hail started falling, Cox kept swimming alone in a pool full of ice.
Scientists would later determine that her unique ratio of muscle to body fat made her anomalously suited to swimming long distances in water so cold, it would kill an ordinary swimmer within minutes. At 15, Cox swam the English Channel, breaking the world record. The next year, she went back to England and broke the record again.
It would be a mistake to think that Cox's new autobiography, Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long-Distance Swimmer, is of interest only to swimmers. In fact, the book has more in common with heroic literature of the ancient world like Beowulf and The Odyssey than with the typical athlete's success story. Like those ancient heroes, Cox isn't satisfied with races that have a designated course. Instead, she looks for unique athletic challenges that only she can overcome. That's why, at 17, she fell out of love with channel swimming and, instead, took on the unknown swimming icy lakes, straits and channels that had been thought impossible for a swimmer to breach. Her famous 1987 swim across the Bering Sea from Alaska to the Soviet Union took 10 years to plan, and the water, in August, was barely above freezing.
Although Cox isn't a professional writer, she has a keen eye for details that turn an important life experience into an entertaining story. Readers will be amused, for instance, by the English cab driver who told Cox she was too fat to swim the Channel as he was driving her to the beach for that express purpose.
While other athletes were wooed by corporate sponsors, Cox had to finance her own projects. Her story is a powerful account of clinging hard to a bigger dream.
Lynn Hamilton writes from Tybee Island, Georgia.