Swimming to Antarctica was published in 2005, but I only came across it a few weeks ago. In my book club, we each share two reads we loved and want to recommend to others and Sarah came in December with this book, one she found randomly as a second hand bookshop (I think). As soon as I realized that this book was about EXTREME ATHLETIC FEATS, I was in. I am a sucker for this stuff.
Lynne Cox is a swimmer who, at age fourteen, discovered she had a knack for tackling long distance swims. Her first major swim was across the Catalina Channel. Her second was across the English Channel at 15 — a swim that was a then-world record. Cox quickly moved from breaking records to doing swims no person had ever before completed. (Her personal website has a helpful map, you should check it out).
The swims Cox attempts get increasingly difficult and they develop significance beyond making Cox the first or the fastest. Cox believes that her swims have the power to change things. And they do. Athletic feats can bring people and countries together in a way few other events can, and stories like how the entire nation of New Zealand listened to radio updates her her attempt to be the first woman and fourth person ever to swim the Cook Strait are truly touching. The Soviet Union’s embrace of Cox when she emerges from the Bering Strait is the beautiful, poetic coming together of one swimmer’s dream and the easing of a decades-long political conflict.
But that’s not the only crazy part. Cox’s swims get increasingly physically demanding and dangerous: she swims where sharks might attack (one almost does), where currents threaten to whisk her off to sea at any moment, and she swims in water that’s almost freezing. In one swim in Alaska, she chops ice with her hands to get to the finish line. That’s right. She smashes ice with her hands in order to complete her swim. Cox’s personal abilities are astounding and she continues to challenge herself, both to aid science and just to see if she can do it — all which leads to her swimming in Antarctica. In a regular lyrca swimsuit. No big deal, right?
This is a huge deal. She swims over icebergs, people! ICEBERGS! Her body temperature drops so low she might get hypothermia. The science in the book is basic, but it touches on how adaptable, interesting and unknowable the human body is, especially a body, like Cox’s, which challenges the stereotypical concept of what an “extreme athlete” looks like and is capable of astounding, definition-changing things.
Cox’s accomplishments drive this book, but her prose elevates Swimming to Antarctica beyond your usual “hey, I did some insane stuff and now I’m cashing it in by writing this book” athletic memoir. It’s a meditation on humanity’s ability to change and create and on our relationship with the world around us. Nature can bring us joy and instill in us great fear, and Cox experiences both of these (often at the same time) in each of her swims. I felt so small when I read this book. I, not for the first time, realized just how damn big and dangerous the world is. But I also became astonished by humanity’s capacity to dream, believe and do.
Even when what we dream of is swimming with the penguins.