Q&A With Bob Levey
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, March 25, 2003; Noon ET
"Levey Live" appears Tuesdays at noon ET. Your host is Washington Post columnist Bob Levey. This hour is your chance to talk directly to key Washington Post reporters and editors, local officials and people in the news.
Today, Bob's guest is Lynne Cox, pioneering cold water swimmer.
The cheering section at the end of a swimming race is only slightly visible through the blur of splashing water. In December of 2002, Cox’s cheering section-like crowd of penguins suddenly became very clear. They dove in and swam below her as she darted through sub-zero waters to the Arctic beach. Read Cox’s piece detailing her feat Swimming to Antarctica (the New Yorker, February 3, 2003).
After two years of training, Cox became the first person to attempt an appreciable swim in the frigid waters off Antarctica. She wore only a TYR Lycra bathing suit, a silicone swim cap, and goggles. Her first attempt was a 22-minute test to see how her body would react. Certain she could make it further, she swam 25 minutes two days later to complete a 1.22-mile race against herself and the Arctic elements.
Now 46, Cox became in 1987 the first person to swim the Bering Strait from Alaska to the former Soviet Union.
In numerous lab experiments and record-breaking swims across the English Channel and traverses of the 44th Strait of Magellan, Cox has proved herself unusually suited to cold temperatures. Her core body temperature rarely drops even after long exposure to cold water, a phenomenon hypothermia experts have ascribed to genetics, training acclimation, and good natural insulation.
Compiling her 31-year career, Cox is currently writing a memoir of her swims scheduled for publication next spring.
The transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Bob Levey: Good afternoon, Ms. Cox, and thanks very much for joining us today on "Levey Live." Let's begin with a question about ambition. Mountain climbers who conquer Everest say they did it "because it was there." Why did you take on and conquer so many difficult bodies of water? Because they were there?
Lynne Cox: I guess because it allowed me to reach beyond myself, to test myself physically and mentally and learn from that entire experience.
Lyme, Conn.: I found it fascination how you spent years learning how to better function in cold water. What I am wondering is more of the "why?" When you were younger, did you envision you would become a marathon cold water swimmer? How did your interest in this unique sport emerge?
Lynne Cox: I grew up in Manchester, N.H., and had the opportunity to swim in the Atlantic Ocean and lakes in Maine and simply love swimming in open water. And when you live back there, lots of time the water back there is pretty cold. So I just started out enjoying swimming in cold water and started to be a research subject on cold exposure, and the idea was to try to help understand why I could acclimate the cold water and help others who had been exposed to cold, discovering new ways of re-warming.
Bob Levey: Have you ever done a long, WARM-water swim?
Lynne Cox: Yes, through the Gulf of Aqaba, from Egypt to Israel and from Israel to Jordan tracing the process of peace through the Middle East. And I was able to do this swim just as the border was opened between Israel and Jordan. And the water was so hot. It was 80 degrees and the air temperature was 100 degrees. And I was cooking. And there were lots of jelly fish. You're swimming along and you're getting zapped with every stroke. But the good part was, I had dolphins swimming along side me throughout the swim. And then Queen Noor had a reception for us at the end of the swim.
Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: Does a bevy of scientists and sports medicine types trail behind you on your cold water excursions? It'd be a real shame to waste the opportunity to collect data from your exposures. Might save lives someday. Thanks much. Signed ... ex-pat Alaskan.
Lynne Cox: Yes, they do. I always have doctors or exercise physiologists with me on the swim. And we gather data that we give researchers at the University of London. And on this Antarctica swim, it was the University of Washington.
Bob Levey: Take it from me... once you push beyond 50, your body isn't the same. But Lynne Cox might be the one to disprove that "truth." Do you expect to be setting records as a swimmer when you're past 50? Past 60?
Lynne Cox: Sure. Scott Pelly was interviewing me on the segment on 60 Minutes II, and he was making a comment on my age. And I was telling him that I was thinking about waiting until I had hot flashes to help me on the Antarctica swim. So there are some advantages to swimming in cold water. Women who have sub-normal temperatures may not get hot flashes, so maybe cold water swimming for them.
Long Beach, Calif.: You describe the arctic waters as "sub-zero," yet that is impossible, no? What temperature does salt-water freeze at?
How cold was the water you swam in?
Lynne Cox: The water I swam in was 32 degrees. Salt water freezes at 28.8 degrees, unless the salinity level is very high then it will be a lower temperature than 28.8.
Bob Levey: You're a very unusual swimmer because you rely on your arms to provide about 90 percent of your power. You use your legs mostly for stability. Couldn't you go a lot faster if you kicked the way that Red Cross instructor told me to do, lo these many years ago?
Lynne Cox: No, I wouldn't be going much faster. And, actually, by kicking it was cool me down because I'd be drawing blood away from the core of my body and then brining it out to my feet and exposing it. By kicking you bring the blood out to the legs and feet and lose more heat from that area faster. So kicking is not an advantage for me. Actually, I swim like a polar bear, as a friend told me. It makes sense, because they are totally adapted to the cold-water swimming.
Vienna, Va.: Did you by chance ever go through U.S. Navy SEAL training? They have something called the "cold surf" treatment where cadets have to stay in cold water for hours at a time (with an emergency medical team standing by on the shore).
Lynne Cox: I know one of the exercise physiologists that works Navy Seal team. So he invited me down to San Diego to teach the Seal instructors about what I've learned about cold water survival. I was teaching the teachers.
Bob Levey: How do you pay for a major assault on, say, the Bering Strait? Do you woo sponsors? Do you sell rights to your story ahead of time?
Lynne Cox: Basically, I contact people who are involved in that area. For instance, I contacted Quark Expeditions. They have tours that go down there, to Antarctica, and I was able to get their support, for boat support and logistics. And I got local support. And I just kept working at it. It wasn't easy.
Bob Levey: What are the first signs of hypothermia? How should one respond?
Lynne Cox: First signs are purple lips, pooling of blood in the shoulder,s you'll get a blueish cast, disorientation, confusion, and then your fingers start to separate very wide and that means your central nervous system is going down. And that's a really bad sign. The things about hypothermia is that it happens so slowly that there could be people who are swimming that you are watching and you don't realize you are in trouble. That's why it was so important to have the three doctors along with me on the swim in Antarctica.
Bob Levey: Have you ever encountered a hungry shark during your swims? If so, what did you do to persuade him that he wasn't really hungry?
Lynne Cox: Actually, when I was swimming around the Cape of Good Hope, a Bronze Whaler Shark, it was 12 feet long, came up out of the sea weed. He was coming through it for me. And I had a diver beside me watching the water, and he had to shoot the shark in the dorsal fin. And the shark turned and bit the spear. But the blood started attracting other sharks. So I swam, very quickly, to shore. I have divers with me when I have dangerous swims like that. And I would not repeat that swim.
Bob Levey: Will you ever do a long, cold swim with a partner (a human partner, that is--I know all about your penguin partners!).
Lynne Cox: You know, I've done that before. My first swim, from the Catalina Islands to the California mainland, was done with a group of kids. We were two 14-year-olds and one 12-year-old. It was 27 miles. And it took 12 hours and 36 minutes. It's just too hard to swim with a group. If you're faster, you end up treading water and waiting and getting very cold. So I wouldn't do a long swim with somebody. It's too hard. It's a good way to start but not a good way to continue.
Bob Levey: You can tell us the truth: Do you EVER get cold when you're swimming?
Lynne Cox: All the time. All the time. I feel the cold just like anyone else, I think.
Bob Levey: Have you ever done a long swim without a boat following beside you?
Lynne Cox: No. You need the boat for safety and for navigation. And to document that it really happened.
Bob Levey: You don't always slather your body in grease before you attempt a cold-water swim. Why not?
Lynne Cox: It doesn't really insulate. And if there's an emergency and you need to be pulled out of the water, and if you're covered with grease, it's very hard to get a hold of you and get you out.
Bob Levey: How close have you come to perishing during a swim?
Lynne Cox: On the swim I did in the Nile River, I came close to passing out in the water. I was very sick before I started the swim and very dehydrated and should not have swum.
Bob Levey: Do you eat during a long-distance swim? If so, what?
Lynne Cox: In warmer water, I will stop and eat. And usually I drink warm apple juice that's cut in half with water. Or oatmeal raisin cookies. And I'm still trying to figure out what will work better. They throw them overboard and hopefully you catch them before they hit the water. Otherwise, you have salty oatmeal cookies.
Bob Levey: Please talk about the mental preparation you undergo before a long, testing swim. Do you read philosophy? Listen to calm music? Both? Neither?
Lynne Cox: Actually psyching up for a long distance swim is actually a long process. I think I psyched up for the Antarctica swim for two years, by picturing it, what the swim would be like, where I would land.
Bob Levey: When Lindbergh landed in Paris, they rolled out the red carpet for him. Has Lynne Cox ever gotten a standing ovation (penguins don't count)?
Lynne Cox: Yes. Actually, I live in Los Alamitos, Calif. and I've had three Lynne Cox days when they've had parades and marching bands and cheer leaders and the whole thing. The first time was when I was 15 and swam the English Channel and broke the world records for men and women. And then the other thing that was really amazing was when I swam across Lake Baikal in Siberia. The place where I started the swim is right a place called Cape Tolstoy. And they named that cape next to it after me. So that's pretty big. There's a little plaque there now. It was pretty amazing. And they're talking about doing something like that in Antarctica where I swam.
Arlington, Va.: I grew up swimming in the waters off Cape Cod and cold New England lakes. Now that I'm older (48) I seem to have much less tolerance for cold water.
Do you have any advice or tips (including just psychology, convincing yourself that it's not that cold) to help deal with cold water?
Lynne Cox: Actually, that's normal reaction. As you get older or if you are very young, you don't have the cold tolerance that you do when you are in-between those ages. The best thing I can recommend is to monitor yourself. Just swim until you feel okay. And when you don't feel okay, get out of the water. Being safe is the most important thing.
Bob Levey: Tiger Woods isn't just great at hitting golf balls. He makes a tremendous living at it. Does Lynne Cox make a tremendous living at long-distance swimming? Will she ever?
Lynne Cox: I haven't made any money off these swims. But I do the lecture circuit and my book is coming out, so hopefully that will help me continue in this area.
Bob Levey: Many scientists have studied your ability to withstand cold, and amazing stress. They don't seem to agree on the reason. What do you think the reason is?
Lynne Cox: I think it's because I swim at a very high speed for me, so I'm creating body heat. The fat layer that I have on my body acts like an internal wet suit. And my body have been able to cut down the blood flow externally very well. So I've been able to retain the heat in the core of my body. And a large factor also is being mentally set to do what I do.
Bob Levey: Can you tell when your body temperature drops to--or below--the magic number of 94 degrees fahrenheit, the point at which hypothermia sets in?
Lynne Cox: No. That's the problem, because you can start getting into serious trouble without really being aware. There's no way to tell when you're swimming, if you're dropping below that temperature. And actually, I don't think my temperature dropped much during the Antarctica swim. It was afterward, when I stopped exercising, because I was no longer creating heat.
Bob Levey: According to The New York Times, fitness experts are recommending rest in larger doses than ever. Instead of busting your rear end by training seven days a week, they are recommending that serious athletes like you train only five days a week, and rest for two. Comments?
Lynne Cox: That's what I've done forever. Because your body needs time to recover before you stress it again.
Bob Levey: Usually, when you finish one of your swims, you immediately hop into a chemically heated sleeping bag. It raises your temperature to normal in an hour or so. What are the chemicals that perform this job? How much does such a bag cost?
Lynne Cox: Well, actually, it's not a chemically heated sleeping bag. This is something that we devised, and it was basically a pull on jersey top and pants. We used those re-warmers you use for skiing. We put those in pockets under the arms, in the groin area. And I had a scarf. And that's so we could heat the key arteries of the body, so we re-warmed from the inside out. There's a company in Carlsbad, Calif. that makes the packs. And they're just called re-warmers. And I( have no idea what the chemicals are.
Bob Levey: You once swam the Gulf of Aqaba -- waters that link Israel, Egypt and Jordan -- because you thought it might bring peace to that region. Obviously, that didn't happen. Time to try again?
Lynne Cox: The swim traced the process of peace, the whole agreement. And I think that peace is something that people continuously work on. Like any relationship, it takes time.
Bob Levey: Many thanks to our guest today, Lynne Cox, and special thanks to the staff at the office of career services at Middlebury College. Be sure to join us next Tuesday when our guest on "Levey Live" will be Dr. Paramjit Joshi, chair of the department of psychiatry at Children's National Medical Center in Washington. We'll discuss how to handle children who are anxious because of the war in Iraq. Our discussion with Dr. Joshi will begin at noon Eastern time on April 1.
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