A Tale of Two Careers
Even as she tested the limits of human endurance with marathon ocean swims -- including an unprecedented crossing of the Bering Strait between Alaska and Siberia -- Lynne Cox harbored a more intellectual ambition: to write.
"I knew when I was 9 years old that I wanted to be a writer," says Cox.
For years, however, she was too busy training and performing as one of the world's top marathon swimmers, smashing barriers on every corner of the globe. Cox twice set the record for the fastest swim across the English Channel. She was the first woman to cross New Zealand's turbulent Cook Strait, an ordeal that lasted 12 hours. She also made headlines for conquering the Strait of Magellan in South America and for swimming around the Cape of Good Hope in Africa -- narrowly escaping death in some of the sea's most shark-infested waters.
During breaks in her intensive training routines, and during the quiet hours of her far-flung adventures, Cox immersed herself in books, particularly mysteries. The wonder of books propelled her through creative-writing classes at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and inspired her own second career as an author.
Successfully merging her interests, the 54-year-old Cox has concentrated on intensely personal outdoor adventure stories reminiscent of Jon Krakauer's nonfiction sagas Into the Wild and Into Thin Air. Her third book, South With the Sun: Roald Amundsen, His Polar Explorations, and the Quest for Discovery, released this fall, recounts the true story of the daring Norwegian who became the first man to reach both the North and South Poles.
Amundsen's determination in the face of extraordinary hardship offers the sort of inspiring tale Cox loves best. "I think that's my niche," she says. "I want to put out something positive, something good."
She sees a parallel between marathon swimming and writing, two vastly different pursuits that both require a refusal to give up.
"My swimming helped me to become a better writer, because I learned about tenacity and perseverance," Cox says. "The endurance you need to be a long-distance swimmer is a lot like the endurance you need to write and rewrite."
At her father's urging, Cox kept a detailed journal during even her early swims, including her first crossing of the English Channel at age 15. However, when she enrolled at UC Santa Barbara in the mid-1970s, her writing skills were far behind her aquatic abilities.
"She wasn't a natural writer," recalls John Ridland, a one-time collegiate backstroke swimmer who taught Cox's freshman English class. Coincidentally, Ridland had followed Cox's exploits because of his own love of swimming and had even clipped newspaper accounts of her English Channel crossing, never imagining that she would show up in his classroom one day.
Though her prose was unpolished, the young swimmer had much to say. "She was a long-distance writer," Ridland says, remembering a class in which he tabulated how many pages each pupil wrote. "Her total was twice that of the next most prolific student. She just wrote and wrote and kept on writing."
Ridland, who was inspired by Cox to compete in U.S. Masters Swimming events, encouraged her to write about her adventures and helped her enter an independent study course with Steve Allaback, a published short-story author. Like Ridland, Allaback was unimpressed with Cox's early writing, but noted she had the resolve to accept criticism and strive to get better.
"This was a remarkable young woman who was already famous," Allaback says. "She was prepared to revise, revise, revise -- and she did."
Cox's accounts of her record-breaking swims drew interest, but publishers wanted her to find a biographer. Instead, she chose to write the story herself, condensing and polishing the manuscript with each new swim she accomplished. Finally, in 2004, after 21 years, Knopf released her memoir, Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long-Distance Swimmer. It was one of Sports Illustrated's 10 best books of the year. Her second book, Grayson, was a heartwarming account of Cox's interactions with a baby whale during a training swim in Seal Beach, a short distance from her home in Los Alamitos, Calif.
Having just completed a book tour for South With the Sun, Cox is back at work on her next project. She won't yet disclose the subject, except to say it will be another uplifting, true-life tale.
"People want to be inspired," Cox says. "They want to emulate people who are doing amazing things in their lives."
SecondAct contributor David Ferrell is a Southern California journalist and the author of Screwball, a comic baseball novel.