Interview with long-distance swimmer and author Lynne Cox

"Things that are impossible really aren't."
Lynne Cox is a famed open water swimmer and author of the best-selling book Swimming to Antarctica -- a chronicle of her swims across the Bering Strait, the English Channel (twice) and one mile to the shores of Antarctica.

Her new book, Grayson, is the remarkable story of her experience swimming with a lost gray whale off the coast of California when she was just 17 years old. We spoke with Lynne to get her thoughts on that amazing experience and how it inspired her later ground-breaking achievements.

It's been a busy year for you. Oh very much so. I'm here today gone tomorrow. The book tour that every author loves and dreads and loves again has me going. But, it's been a tremendous year.

After Swimming to Antarctica why did you decide to venture into the young adult/children's genre? Actually I wrote it for adults, but it turns out it's being read to all ages. The youngest reader I met was four years old. The oldest is 97. It's really cool. I met a librarian from Carlsbad, California, and she and her husband would take turns reading a page at a time at night. You write a book and you never think about the way that story will be shared. But, it's so cool.

The book is very detailed about your experience in the water with a gray whale you name Grayson. How did you come up with those details so many years after the event? It's a combination of telling the story and making it more real by including details. So I went back and did research on everything to make sure it was accurate. Things like, do gray whales have four or five dimples on their back? I couldn't remember. I had to find that out. Or how big the mother whale gets and whether the female is bigger than the male. (She is!)

I would also try to describe what it's like to swim in certain situations. What it's like swimming through sunset. How the light becomes liquid. It's about trying to put the reader in the water with the whale and me.

In the book you say, "Each day in the ocean was different." This day was certainly no exception. Is that what you like about it? Absolutely! You never know what's going to happen. And you have to adjust to it. You think, "Okay, I can't just do the same freestyle. I've got to cut down the arm stroke." Or the waves will be strong so I'll have to work harder. It's hard for me to swim in a pool.

I just met a guy who swam Catalina Channel, and the way he trained for it was in his condo pool. How amazing to do something so big and amazing in your condo pool. The amount of laps he had to do. Wow.

In the book you say, "Years later I realized that if I had found the baby whale on my first dive, I might never have heard him speak underwater...and I would never have known how far I could go down into the ocean depths on a single breath." How did the experience with Grayson shape your belief in what was possible? I think it made me realize the things that are impossible really aren't. I mean think about do you find a mother whale in the Pacific Ocean? I mean it's startling. Realizing I could do something like that made me understand in life when things look really big, if you just take it in small steps--or small strokes -- you get really close to achieving what you want to do.

You also say, "I was beginning to realize that I needed to not only prepare physically for something, but mentally as well." Is that the real struggle with long swims -- the mental side? Physical training prepares you mentally. During the swim with Grayson I was scared and wanted to get out of the water, but I kept talking to myself and telling myself to remain calm -- to remind myself to swim closer to shore. And, I think all that is about training your mind as well as your body. But, sometimes I think if it's so mental, why am I training so hard? (Laughs)

Grayson would be 30 years old now. Do you think of him often? Oh yeah. How could you not? It's like having a relationship with somebody and they move on, and you always wonder what happened to them. Did he have a family? If I'm swimming off Palos Verdes and I see the migration of the gray whales, I always wonder if he's out there with them.

I have one question about Antarctica. Did you ever think before that swim, "You know if I have to fill my teeth with fluoride so they don't shatter, maybe I should think twice about this?" Well actually that came from a book by Apsley Cherry-Garrard Gerard called The Worst Journey in the World, which was about the first group to the south pole. He and a friend were in Antarctica during the winter, and the climate made their teeth shatter.

I realized it wasn't going to be that cold -- because I swam there during the summer -- but I didn't know how swimming in 32 degree weather would affect me. Would it damage my hearing? Would the goggles be affected? Nobody knew. The best thing to do is try to protect against everything. And that's why I had my teeth infused with fluoride and why we used dental material to protect my ear canal.

What's your next swim? Any other dangerous places you're thinking of? The backyard swimming pool. (Laughs) Right now I'm just happy to swim wherever I am. I'm headed to Florida, so maybe I'll swim with the alligators and sharks.

Do you train with a coach? I haven't trained with a coach since my late teens. I've pretty much coached myself. I feel like I know my body better than anybody else. I know when I need to push myself and when I need to slack off.

For Antarctica I did a lot of work on the ball and core training. I would usually do this for about an hour because I had to keep my head above water -- precisely because 80 percent of your body heat leaves through your head.

How did you stay self-motivated during your land training? When you try new things you're always the worst at something, but you have to convince yourself that nobody is watching and nobody cares. My neighbor said to me as I was training, "I thought I was really awful, but then I saw you, Lynne." (Laughs) I just said, "Suzy, I'm here to show you how far you've come."

Last and most important question, as a UCSB graduate I have to ask you. What is a gaucho? It's many things. A peanut butter cookie. A South American cowboy. (Laughs.)

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