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Hell In High Waters: The Lynne Cox story

Hell In High Waters When Lynne Cox enters subfreezing seas, she knows she's immersing herself in danger. When her obsession led to a journey through the icy slush of Greenland's Disko Bay, the risks were never deadlier. ESPN The Magazine by Sarah TurcottePHOTOGRAPHY BY MICHAEL MULLER 05/23/13

Lynne Cox is having trouble communicating with the boat. The pounding of her heartbeat muffles the sound of the engine and the shouts of the crew. She can see their faces, though, and she knows it's not good. The Arctic water has numbed her skin; the tension in her lungs has shortened her breath. Her arms and legs, trying to propel her body through the slush, are flailing. The water was 28.8 degrees when she entered; it has since dropped to 26.6. The movement of the current is the only reason it hasn't frozen into a solid sheet of ice. She has lost track of time. No person is known to have survived falling off a boat in the Arctic Ocean near Greenland.

But Cox didn't fall off her boat. She's doing this -- swimming here, in subfreezing water -- on purpose, tracing the routes forged by her childhood hero, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen.

A few feet away, a panicked crew of four volunteers is standing in an inflatable raft-like boat called a Zodiac. Two of the four made the trip with Cox from the United States; the others, reps from the local tourism board, she just met. They've all studied the route to the local hospital. They've discussed protocol, but they've never practiced it. The rescue lifeguard, Bill Lee, is wearing a dry suit over long underwear. With him are the boat's driver, who stands ready to drag Cox from the water, and a safety person at the bow whose role is to watch for dangers such as icebergs and killer whales -- things other than the water that could bring her down. Dry, wearing parkas, wool hats, gloves and insulated boots, they watch her struggle in just a bathing suit, cap and goggles. "All I can think about is a fisherman last night who said his boat doesn't even have life jackets," Lee says. "He says it's a waste because, within a minute, anyone would be dead."

In 2003, "60 Minutes" followed Lynne Cox as she set off to swim a mile to Antarctica.

Out of the water, Cox doesn't look like a member of the International Swimming Hall of Fame or the owner of 57 major open-water records. She doesn't even look like an athlete. Her musculature isn't defined despite five days a week at the gym on top of her swimming regimen. At 5-foot-6, she has neither broad shoulders nor a trim waist. She looks like the kindly neighbor who walks everyone's dogs when they're on vacation.

The irony isn't lost on her: Her physique is her biggest asset -- and the only thing she'd like to change about herself. She doesn't think her middle-aged body is perfect, but, ever the positive thinker, she knows it's perfect for what she does with it. It's what enables her to survive swims in freezing water.

Which is why Cox is here on this dreary March morning in 2007 at the age of 50, attempting the impossible yet again.

Cox has become an open-water swimming legend. Here, she rests on a paddle board at the Leeway Sailing & Aquatic Center in Long Beach, Calif. Michael Muller for ESPN

Cox is more comfortable in the cold. Always has been. As a chubby 9-year-old girl on her first swim team, in Manchester, N.H., she chose to swim laps outside in hailstorms to avoid practicing indoors with her teammates, including her older brother and younger sister. "I remember one day in June, it was so cold I wouldn't even put my toe in the water," says Cox's brother, David. "I looked out the window, down the 50-meter pool to see our coach standing on the starting block in full rain gear, wearing a parka and holding an umbrella. My sister was the only person in the pool, like it was sunny and 75."

ENLARGE In February 1975, Cox became the first woman to swim across Cook Strait between the North and South islands of New Zealand. She completed the treacherous 14-mile strait in a posted time of 12 hours and 2 1/2 minutes. AP Photo

When Cox was 12, her family moved to the West Coast when her father, a radiologist, took a job near Long Beach, Calif. She and her siblings -- not including her youngest sister, Ruth -- continued swimming, but David and younger sister Laura were much faster than Lynne. "I was always in the slow lane," says Lynne, laughing. But it was her endurance that got her coaches' attention. She could be an excellent pool distance swimmer, but given her tolerance for cold, they suggested she try open-water swimming. From her first early morning practice, it was clear she had found her niche. The ocean's cold temperatures never caused her to lose focus, and her pace was perfect for distances of several miles. Cox was easily the strongest swimmer in her open-water group, so strong that she was invited to swim the Catalina Channel.

That September, in 1971, Cox and three others became the first group of teenagers to swim the 27 miles from Seal Beach, just south of Long Beach, to Catalina Island. Well into the swim, Cox was on record pace. "I was way ahead of the others, and our crew on the boat told me I had a chance to break the record." But Cox had agreed to swim with the team and she wanted to finish with the team. She stopped and treaded water. "When two boys caught up with me, I told them we needed to wait for our fourth." But when the boys got cold, Cox sent them ahead. She treaded water again, eventually finishing with her last teammate in 12 hours and 36 minutes. After the race, when the Los Angeles Times interviewed the group, the two boys bragged about beating Cox by 10 minutes. "I was fine with it because I knew I'd kept my commitment," Cox says, characteristically unfazed. "But that was the last time I was going to swim with a team." Three years later, Cox swam the Catalina Channel alone in just 8 hours, 48 minutes, breaking the men's (8:50, set two years prior by David Cox) and women's (12:18) world records.

Given her endurance and tolerance for cold, her coaches suggested she try open-water swimming. Michael Muller for ESPN

Amid the slush of Disko Bay off Greenland's western coast, Cox doesn't feel cold in her bones yet, so she's confident hypothermia, at least severe hypothermia, hasn't set in. She is thrashing violently -- her stroke isn't her usual hypnotic rhythm -- and she's not even halfway to the target finish line. Her sense of time and distance is off, but that's normal; changes in the current and wind often alter her course. But here there is little, if any, wiggle room.

ENLARGE Cox's body has been studied extensively. The Navy SEALs have tested her for their own cold-water training purposes. Michael Muller for ESPN

Cox knows all of the danger signs because her body has been studied extensively. Navy SEALs have tested her for their own training purposes, and experts at the University of California at Santa Barbara have studied her to better understand the human body's capabilities in cold water. Scientists there put Cox in a swim tank set to 50 degrees and monitored her as she swam for 40 minutes. By the end of the swim, her core temperature had risen to 102 degrees. Only once on a competitive swim has her body temp dropped to a dangerous level -- during a 32-degree Antarctica trek in 2002. She had no feeling in her skin. It took months for the sensation in her fingers and toes to return. When she showered, she had to stick her head in the water to gauge the temperature. Long-term muscle damage was a real possibility for Cox then, as it is now in the waters of Greenland.

Several factors could lead to serious problems for Cox, and if complications do arise, they'll come quickly. "Basic hypothermia happens when the body's core temperature drops below 98.6 degrees, with a little variability," says Dr. Robert "Brownie" Schoene, a critical care pulmonologist and former professor of exercise physiology at the University of Washington. In 1992, he helped Cox train for a high-altitude swim across South America's Lake Titicaca. "When one first gets into very cold water -- and by cold, I'm talking around 60 degrees, nowhere near what Lynne swims in -- the body's small blood vessels shut down, or vasoconstrict, to ensure all of the blood rushes to the core to warm the brain, heart, liver and kidneys."

So frostbite of the extremities, although not ideal, is actually a survival mechanism. Beyond that point, the body quickly spirals out of control. Cold feels hot. The brain becomes confused, and everything shuts down. Schoene says most people vasoconstrict to some degree, but then their capillaries dilate and their core temp rapidly drops, which leads to severe, possibly fatal, hypothermia. The dilation causes I'm-a-Golden-God-like judgment, organ failure and death. Researchers still aren't completely sure what allows Cox's body to stave off that dilation phase, but after dozens of cold-water swims, they know she has proved she can survive longer than most. How long is unclear in Greenland.

“I just do a thing that some people find peculiar. And that's OK with me as long as I have some dinner companions once I get out of the water.”- Lynne Cox

By the time she enrolled at the UCSB, Cox was already one of the most accomplished, if extreme, open-water swimmers in history. In 1972, at just 15, she broke the men's and the women's English Channel world records, swimming 30 miles in 9 hours, 57 minutes. Three years later, she became the first woman to swim between the North and South islands of New Zealand. As a college sophomore, in 1976, she was the first person to swim through the Strait of Magellan -- in 42-degree water. To give an inkling of context, trainers warn pro athletes that they can do irreparable muscle damage if they stay in 41-degree ice baths for more than 12 minutes. Cox swam for 1 hour, 2 minutes.

But on land, Cox's life was relatively tame. She was an excellent student, enamored with artists and explorers. "I have always made friends easily," Cox says. "I just do a thing that some people find peculiar. And that's OK with me as long as I have some dinner companions once I get out of the water."

That's exactly what she found on her college swim team. "Lynne was probably the most accomplished person on our very, very accomplished team," says her college teammate and roommate, Sandy Neilson-Bell. When they arrived in Santa Barbara in 1974, Cox and Neilson-Bell were both swimming prodigies; Neilson-Bell had won three gold medals as a sprint freestyler at the 1972 Munich Olympics. The two women, along with half a dozen others, lived together as sophomores and again as seniors. The group was extremely close, spending twice-daily practices, lifting sessions and dinners together.

But even among other elite swimmers, Cox remained a bit of a loner. She'd wake up at 4 a.m. to swim in the ocean by herself. It took months before Neilson-Bell and the other roommates even realized she was in the Pacific in the dark every morning before pre-class pool practice. She just didn't think to tell them. "Her independence never offended us," Neilson-Bell says. "Trying to pry something out of her was like a game." When, at 28, Neilson-Bell made a comeback on the international swimming scene that lasted into her late 30s, Cox was one of the few people who supported her. "I had so many people telling me to get a life or get a real job," Neilson-Bell says, "but Lynne never thought I was crazy. And I've never thought she was, either." Not when Cox convinced Soviet leaders to open the border for the first time in 50 years so she could swim the Bering Strait during the Cold War. Not when she rounded South Africa's Cape of Good Hope during apartheid. Certainly not when Cox turned to Neilson-Bell for advice on breath control and pacing in preparation for her sprint in deadly Disko Bay.

Cox during a practice swim in the Norton Sound off Nome, Alaska, on Aug. 7, 1987. At the time, she was preparing for an unprecedented 2.7-mile swim in frigid waters and fast tides from the U.S. island of Little Diomede to the Soviet island of Big Diomede. AP Photo/Rob Stapleton

The first sign of real trouble for Cox and her crew is her shortness of breath. She can't settle herself enough to talk or shout, so they can't know whether she's thinking clearly. Hyperventilation is also inefficient for her stroke. She's wasting energy just trying to breathe. "Lynne is so skilled at swimming in a straight line that she can go a thousand strokes without picking her head up. She knows the currents and the wind, which allows her to remain on target," says her sister Laura, now a professional swim coach and genetic scientist in San Antonio. "That's like swimming 500 yards in a pool with your eyes closed. And she does it at an incredible pace." Schoene has seen it, too: "When I was working with Lynne in the Puget Sound, which isn't warm," he says, "she had a photographer with her. He was decked out in scuba gear with fins, and he still couldn't catch up with her to get the shot."

But Cox's head is up now. The temperature and her inability to breathe prevent her from putting her face in the water, and the resulting drag of her hips simulates a brutal uphill swim. She's struggling to move forward at all, giving her flashbacks to the time currents forced her to swim backward for three hours during a world-record-breaking English Channel swim at the beginning of her career. "If a person is running a marathon, he knows it will be 26.2 miles. He knows the course and where it begins and ends," Laura says. "Open-water swimmers deal with tides, chop and wind. They often have to use a support boat to determine their target. Depending on currents and tide, a 25-mile swim can become a 30-mile swim. Imagine the start of a marathon and the official says, 'We're going to begin here, and in the middle of the race we're going to surprise you with hills and turns and drastic variations in air temperature. Eventually, we'll tell you when you're done.'" That's what Lynne does in very cold water.

For much of her life, Cox has known she is unique. More than even the greatest other athletes, Cox is conscious of her superhuman characteristics. But in Catalina, the Strait of Magellan, the Bering Strait, Antarctica and Greenland, Cox wasn't cheered on by 80,000 fans. When she broke a record, she didn't get a big contract or a guest spot on "The Oprah Winfrey Show." She is self-motivated, self-propelled, which makes her drive more impressive than that of even the most decorated stars. Cox is 56 now, and has been a world-class athlete for decades but without any of the advantages, under circumstances no one else has experienced. Open-water swimming in freezing temperatures has no team structure, no league structure, no financial structure. But Cox knows that she is designed to do something special in the water and that neither extreme cold nor advancing age can slow her down.

ENLARGE Cox takes a break during her training for an English Channel crossing in the early 1970s. She is flanked by brothers Dick and Bill Crowell of Westport, Conn., who also were training to make their bid. Dick was 15 at the time, and Bill 16. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The opportunity costs of Cox's choices -- her "pièce de swims," as Nielson-Bell has dubbed them -- are steep. Cox knows children probably are not in her future. She has no endorsements, although swimwear company TYR does send her a bathing suit or a cap from time to time. She makes a living from doing speaking engagements, coaching and writing books about her swim experiences, all of which she funded with the help of an investor or paid for with grants and the help of volunteers. Her 2005 best-selling memoir "Swimming to Antarctica" sold more than 100,000 copies and is used in elementary schools as a study aid.

Cox's perpetually bushy-tailed demeanor is likely why so many people volunteer to join her crews. Her fearlessness is almost comforting, and the tone in her voice is hypnotically smooth. She glosses over some of the seemingly imprudent elements of her swims with shoulder shrugs and by saying, "We don't know the limits of the human body."

"I do this because I can," she says, adding that water is the great age equalizer. "If you were really good at something -- even something that seemed weird to others -- and knew you could change common perceptions, wouldn't you feel like you had to do it for as long as possible?"

But even those closest to her grow exasperated. "My mother [who was an artist] once asked me why I have to do this," Cox says. "I turned to her and asked in response, 'Why do you have to paint?' I think, in that moment, she was as close as anyone's ever come to understanding."

Still, they worry. Cox keeps details of her swims close to the vest now to avoid worrying her siblings. "She doesn't want to hear anything negative," Laura says. "Lynne doesn't see half empty. But I know swimming and I know science, so I can't help but get pits in my stomach." The Greenland trip drew the most concern, making her family members wonder whether they'd get the phone call telling them she didn't make it. Because of the nature of the swims Cox does, the end has always dangled. But as she has gotten older, and the swims more extreme, it seems closer now than ever. The body might not continue to let Cox swim cold waters. And even if it does, at some point she'll face retirement, which can be traumatic for any elite athlete. Cox still swims every day, but she hasn't planned another cold swim to date -- at least not one she'll fess up to.

Lynne Cox's 2003 Antarctic swim in the coldest water on earth was captured by "60 Minutes."

ENLARGE At some point, Cox will retire. For now, though, she swims every day. Michael Muller for ESPN

Desperate to catch her breath, Cox switches to the backstroke. Immediately, Lee considers pulling her out. "I know she can't see where she's going, and she's not responding to our direction," he says. Her usual methodical freestyle has given way to a choppy, frantic backstroke. She's not gliding through the water; she looks like a rag doll. She's not controlling her body's movement; the cold is. But the look on Cox's face when she sees movement on the boat says: "Don't you dare." Lee knows it's on him if she dies, and given her shortness of breath and seeming lack of focus, cardiac arrest is more of a concern than drowning at this point. Because she's swimming on her back, Cox can't see clearly that the rocky finish line is just a handful of feet in front of her. But the crew's shouts and gestures tell her it's there. As she flips over, though, she realizes she's not in the clear. The rendezvous point is too steep, the tide too low, and she doesn't have the strength to lift herself out. She still cannot feel her legs and arms. Her fatigue from sprinting and her lungs' constriction from the cold still make it impossible for her to speak. In 44 years of cold swims, she had never lost her voice. The boat might not be able to get close enough to the shore for Lee to save her. She's splashing and lifting her foot -- a pre-planned act if she needs to communicate with the crew -- and finally they understand she's not comfortable with the landing spot. It's rocky and flanked by barnacles. She might not be able to get a good grip to pull herself up without cutting up her legs. Blood draws predators. There's nothing the crew can do.

Lynne doesn't have a plan. She rolls back on her back. She just wants to get close. But she knows she could lose this battle. Cox rolls over to face her fate. In front of her, half a dozen locals dressed in fur parkas who have just left a nearby church service are knee-deep in the freezing water and urging her to swim on. They've eased down the rocks to help her ashore. When she reaches them, they pull her up to safety. After 5 minutes and 26 seconds in the coldest water anyone is known to have survived, Cox is finally on her feet again, her legs like noodles from exhaustion. Some locals cheer, but most are quiet with disbelief, staring at the stranger standing on their frozen shore wearing only a bathing suit and broad, warm smile.

Sarah Turcotte writes for ESPN The Magazine. Follow the Mag on Twitter: @ESPNmag. Follow ESPN_Reader on Twitter: @ESPN_Reader.

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