This Day in Swimming: Lynne Cox Swims Across the Iron Curtain

August 7, 1987, was a foggy morning on the Alaskan coast. Lynne Cox faced out over the frigid waters of the Bering Strait. The 30-year-old open water swimmer was about to cross the U.S.-Soviet border, which the Cold War had been keeping closed since 1948.

11 Years in the Making
Lynne first had the idea to swim the strait for peace in 1976, around age 19. She looked for funding and support but was roundly denied. Without any kind of sponsorship, Lynne would have to bankroll the endeavor entirely on her own.

She was already an accomplished open water swimmer. At age 15, she set the record for the fastest English Channel crossing by man or woman, reaching shore in 9 hours, 57 minutes. A year later, she broke her own record by 21 minutes. Numerous other marathon-swimming ‘firsts’ followed.

"I wanted to open the border so we could become friends," Lynne said in one interview. She took a huge leap of faith – saving, planning, and swimming for the next 11 years for a grand good-will gesture that almost never happened.

Open water swimmer and inspirational speaker Lynne Cox
At the height of the Cold War, 30-year-old open water swimmer Lynne Cox crossed the Bering Stait, from the U.S. to the U.S.S.R. Her swim was hailed as a victory for peace by both President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Seen here in 2012, she fondly recalled the faces that greeted her: “I could see from the eyes of the Russians that it was special for them too.”
Flickr credits: TEDx Monterey

Final Preparations
As Lynne set a date and made final preparations, she did not yet have approval from both governments. Even as she traveled to Alaska, she was taking a huge leap of faith.

As the day of the swim approached, news agencies had caught wind of Lynne's endeavor for peace; it made headlines internationally. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev saw the reporting and realized that to deny Lynne's effort would be terribly embarrassing for the Soviet Union.

Despite their previous stonewalling, Gorbachev was forced to relent. With 24 hours before go-time, Lynne got her approval from Moscow.

A Foggy Morning
The water of the Bering Strait was 38 degrees F. The 2.7-mile swim would be dangerously frigid.

Her Inuit guides didn't arrive until the last minute; they'd been up all night celebrating the prospect of seeing relatives across the strait, which hadn't been permitted in years.

As Lynne set out, dense fog dropped visibility to only 400 meters. Overhead, jets from the world’s two superpowers flew in mutual shows of intimidation, and their military forces massed on their respective borders.

But the Inuit guides hadn't been across the strait in so long that no one actually knew the way. The guide boats kept shifting course, raising the general anxiety level and lengthening the distance of her swim. An American journalist had to help navigate the party.

Land Ho
As Lynne approached the Russian shore, a cliff became visible in the distance. American supports urged Lynne to head for it; but she spied an unexpected welcome party further along the beach. She realized that she needed to shake the hand of a flesh-and-blood human. Otherwise, what was the point of this peace mission?

Lynne set her own course for the beach party. This final half-mile, against strong offshore currents, became the most difficult portion of the swim.

She reached Soviet soil 2 hours and 6 minutes after leaving the U.S. coast. The Russians were ebullient! “It was overwhelming on the snow bank,” she would later tell reporters. “I could see from the eyes of the Russians that it was special for them too.”

At the time, though, she was more interested in getting into a tent and raising her body temperature.

A Stroke Toward Peace
As Lynne thawed after her swim, U.S.-Soviet relations were also warming up. While larger forces were at work in ultimately bringing down the Iron Curtain, she put a human face to the divide. Through her dogged persistence, she bridged the gap to personally shake the hands of Russians eager to welcome the so-called “enemy.”

That December, Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan held peace talks in Washington. The two leaders toasted the swimmer.

“Last summer, it took one brave American by the name of Lynne Cox just two hours to swim from one of our countries to the other,” Gorbachev was quoted as saying. "She proved by her courage how close to each other our peoples live."

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