A Cold War Cold Swim

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A Brief History

On August 7, 1987, an American woman named Lynne Cox, age 30, swam all the way from the United States to the Soviet Union, through ice cold water!  Cox’s swim was a good will gesture during the latter stages of the Cold War between the USSR and its (communist) allies and the United States and its allies.  The successful swim was later given credit for helping to “thaw” relations between the US and USSR, though we doubt the swim helped thaw out Cox!

Digging Deeper

As far as notable long distance swims go, this particular one was not that far, only about 2.3 miles between the American island of Little Diomedes and the Soviet island of Big Diomedes.  Prior to World War II, the native people on the islands, Inuits, were allowed to travel back and forth between the islands, but that changed after World War II when the Soviet government relocated their Inuit island citizens to the mainland and forbade travel between the islands.  The swim may not have been long, taking “only” 2 hours and 5 minutes, but we are talking about the Bering Sea and August water temperatures of about 43 degrees Fahrenheit.

Lynne Cox was no amateur swimmer for long open water dips, having twice previously set the world speed record for swimming the English Channel and having become the first person ever to swim the Straits of Magellan.  Adding to her impressive list of firsts, Cox was the first person to swim the Cook Straits in New Zealand and the first to swim around the Cape of Good Hope below Africa.  This intrepid lady was indeed one brave, highly accomplished swimmer.

The 1987 swim between the rival super-power countries was noted in 1988 when US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Gorbachev signed a weapons reduction treaty (the INF Missile Treaty), both toasting the swimming feat of Cox the previous summer.  (You could call her swim an “ice breaker!”)  The warm welcome of Cox by the Soviets when she arrived at Big Diomedes Island was taken as an indication of the thaw in relations between the 2 countries.

As noted above, Lynne Cox is no stranger to harrowing and precedent setting swims.  She was the first person to take a swim for over a mile in Antarctica (Brrr!) and the first person to swim across Lake Titicaca, the acknowledged highest altitude (12,507 feet) navigable lake in the world.  On the Titicaca swim, the high altitude was a serious impediment, as were some sort of unknown biting critters!

Acutely aware of the Earth’s environment through her travels and daring swims, Cox has written a few books and has taken steps to draw attention to environmental issues, especially water quality, as evidenced by her 2006 swim (with others) across the Ohio River from Ohio to Kentucky to publicize and protest the lowering of government water standards for that waterway.

Born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1957, Lynne Cox is now 63 years old.  Her pursuits in recent years are more along the line of speaking engagements, writing, and producing film.  She is particularly interest in teaching young people about her adventures and environmental concerns.  Her website is: http://www.lynnecox.com/  Yes, she still swims!

Question for students (and subscribers): Who is your favorite female swimmer (and why)?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Cox, Lynne.  Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long-Distance Swimmer.  Mariner Books, 2005.

Cox, Lynne.  Swimming in the Sink: A Memoir.  Vintage, 2017.

The featured image in this article, a photograph by TEDx Monterey of Lynne Cox – with herself swimming, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.