Saturday, November 7, 2009

Beluga, Woman Make Baby: News at 11

I’m certain that the icy waters off the coast of Antarctica not only forced distance swimmer Lynne Cox into retirement, they also damaged her brain beyond repair. How else can the bizarre events described within the pages of her memoir Swimming to Antarctica be explained? At one point in her career, while swimming in the heavily polluted Nile River she unknowingly punches through the chest cavity of a dead dog floating in the water. In the treacherous waters of New Zealand’s Cook Strait a pod of dolphins joins her for a swim, adopting her as their own, and guide her to shore. Off the coast of Africa, in shark infested waters near the Cape of Good Hope she is nearly attacked by a great white. Luckily, as it is lunging at her mouth-agape, a member of her support team strikes it with the harpoon killing the beast instantly. The stories are so far fetched that I half expected Cox to proclaim that her mother once had an affair with a handsome Beluga Whale and that this is how she was conceived.

When you are talking about the high seas however, a little embellishment is always in order. Pirates, ship’s captains and fishermen all have a storied history of exaggeration and now they can add “distance swimmer” to their number. Lynne Cox’s physical accomplishments are nothing short of remarkable and I suspect that swimming more than a mile or two across the open ocean gives one the right to brag a little. Maybe that's why the scientists who probed and examined her over the years discovered gills behind her ears!*

That I read this book at all is a result of what I thought was a lie. My sister and I were talking one day about the woman who swam across the Bering Strait, to which I responded “Impossible!”.

It’s too cold.

It's too far.

It's too... stupid.

I had, after all, taken anthropology courses in college, and understood that the Bering Strait was probably passable by humans in pre-historic times. Most scientific circles believe that this is how Native Americans came to the North American continent. But those days are long gone as glaciers have melted and landmasses have moved away from one another. Looking at the globe on my desk further proved that Alaska and Russia, though close, are just too far apart for a brisk morning swim. Being a sucker for stories about adventurers and pioneers, I had to find out how Lynne Cox managed to swim from one continent to another in temperatures that were near freezing. Apparently she was occasionally lifted out of the water by friendly narwhals. *

Absurdities aside, Swimming to Antarctica is a swift, enjoyable read that takes you to the edge of what is possible with the human body. Cox is able to extract gold out of a subject that can very easily become boring. There is after all nothing terribly interesting about hours of solitude on the open sea. As one can expect in a book of this nature, there is a certain amount of Grrlpower injected into the prose. But Cox is smart and only mentions her desire and motivation to beat the boys a few times. Moreover, she has a sense of mission and purpose that she describes wonderfully. This is the glue that holds the story together. You might think that Lynne Cox herself, not Ronald Reagan, was responsible for ending the Cold War, but with a story like hers, in a small way she just might have been.

Lynne Cox’s days as distance swimmer appear to be over for now, though she has said that she is currently raising money to swim the canals of Mars*. Antarctica, it seems, was not terribly kind to her body. Even a human so perfectly designed for the task (or half human, half beluga whale perhaps), it seems that there are some conditions too extreme to endure. I for one am glad she tried, and enjoyed reading about the journey tremendously.

*That’s an embellishment.

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