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US endurance swimmer Lynne Cox swam the frigid waters of the Bering Strait into warm Soviet embrace

by ZwemZa on August 11th, 2017
US long-distance swimmer Lynne Cox’s swim across the Bering Strait in 1987 helped thaw the US-Soviet Cold War.

US long-distance swimmer Lynne Cox’s swim across the Bering Strait in 1987 helped thaw the US-Soviet Cold War.

It was the shortest slog in endurance swimmer Lynne Cox’s 16-year career, at just 3.75km, but her arrival on bleak, inhospitable Big Diomede Island 30 years ago won global acclaim.

With every stroke across the chill waters of Bering Strait on August 7, 1987, Cox helped thaw the US-Soviet Cold War.

Her two-hour crossing from US Little Diomede Island to Soviet Big Diomede had been in planning for 11 years, and even as she ploughed through fog in 6C degree waters, Cox was not sure she would be permitted to step onto Soviet territory.

Cox’s father had suggested the swim, to “show that the US and the Soviet Union are neighbours”, she explained. “It was at the height of the Cold War, and it seemed like a really wild idea to even consider doing that. But I just thought maybe there’s a way to diminish tensions, maybe this swim could help make people realise the relationship is not between Washington DC and Moscow, it’s between Alaska and Siberia, and the distance is only 3.75km.”

Little Diomede Island, then home to about 150 Inupiat, is 25km west of Alaska. Big Diomede, depopulated by Soviets after World War II, is 45km southeast of Cape Dezhnev, the easternmost point of Siberia. At the Alaska Purchase in 1867, the Russian-US border was drawn between Big Diomede and Little Diomede islands.

US endurance swimmer Lynne Cox in 1976 after swimming from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic around the Cape of Good Hope.

Cox, born in Boston in 1957, sent dozens of letters to US and Soviet officials asking permission to attempt the swim across the Cold War “Ice Curtain”. Staff at the Goodwill Games in Moscow in 1986 helped pressure Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev into viewing her swim as an expression of glasnost. But after arriving on Little Diomede in early August with her medical team, who helped fund a support crew of Inupiat navigators in two walrus-skin umiak boats, locals noticed a Soviet ship nearby. US Air Force planes then flew over, and the Soviets sent up MIGS.

“People were calling the senator’s office saying, ‘What’s going on?’ He said, ‘Oh Lynne’s trying to do this swim to improve relations.’ Everyone sort of relaxed, but behind the scenes, things were very tense,” Cox recalled.

Cox made her first endurance swim at age 14 in 1971, with the first group of teenagers to cross Catalina Island Channel in California. At 15 she set her first record for the fastest English Channel swim from England to France, in 9 hours 57 minutes in 1972, cutting it by 21 minutes in 1973. She became the first woman to swim in 10C degree waters in Cook Strait, New Zealand in 1975, and in 1976 was the first person to swim the Straits of Magellan in Chile, and first to swim around the South African Cape of Good Hope. With unusual neutral buoyancy, her body density is the same as seawater. Cox has been told her “proportion of fat to muscle is perfectly balanced”, so she does not float or sink in the water.

Lynne Cox swims across the Bering Strait from Little Diomede Island (Alaska) to Big Diomede Island (Soviet Union) in August 1987.

She also has extraordinary ability to resist cold. In water colder than about 10C, most people lose body heat quickly and go into hypothermic shock. Monitoring with a rectal thermometer, linked to support boats by a 6m cable on her Bering swim, has found Cox’s core body temperature can rise on a long swim. On her Bering swim her limbs went blue and splotchy, “like a corpse’s”, but her metabolism kept sending blood to vital organs, as a subcutaneous fat layer provided an “internal wetsuit” for her 167cm, 81kg frame.

“The swim had been about reaching out to the Soviets and connecting with them, and it would not have been a great swim if we hadn’t been able to do the extra distance,” she says. “So my support crew, along with Soviets in the skiff, paralleled the shores of Big Diomede to land on the snowbank.” Unable to get out of the water because rocks were covered in ice and snow, three Soviet soldiers lifted her from the water at 5.02pm. Immediately wrapped in blankets, towels and coats, her body temperature dipped dangerously low to 34.4C degrees. After several hours sharing tea and Soviet hospitality, Cox returning by boat to Little Diomede.

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