Like many, Lynne Cox got into swimming at an early age. Unlike many, though, she went on to discover an unusual gift: cold-water tolerance, to a greater extent than most. Over the years she became known for her cold, challenging, sometimes nation-bridging open-water swims, a number of which had never been done before. Her achievements include twice holding a world record for the fastest crossing of the English Channel, swimming across the Bering Strait in 38-degree water and swimming more than a mile in 32-degree water in Antarctica.
She has also written extensively about the life aquatic. “Swimming in the Sink,” Cox’s sixth book, touches on several aspects of her swimming and cold-water life before transitioning into a long narrative about the major impacts of a few recent events.
“Sink” starts off slow, with four chapters devoted to descriptions of university medical tests on Cox to learn more about her body’s unique response to cold-water immersion. In the fifth chapter, however, her writing slides into a different gear and becomes significantly more lyrical as she starts talking about her passion. “When I am swimming,” she writes, “I feel like a musician discovering nuances in sound, color, and rhythm. My body is the instrument and the ocean is the symphony. I immerse myself in music and hear and feel the ocean’s movements. We create music together. I hear the driving beat of my arms and legs and the song of my breath and bubbles. Like a musician, I improvise.”
After brief accounts of her swims in the Beagle Channel in 1990 and Lake Titicaca in 1992, Cox moves closer to the present day. She describes the difficulty of caring single-handedly for her aging, ailing parents for many years, and then the overwhelming pain of losing them, one after the other. Before she’s finished grieving, she finds herself facing a serious cardiac condition of her own. (Fortunately, she doesn’t face it alone; she has a small army of loving, supportive friends.) The rest of the book traces her long process of recovery. Cox never comes across as arrogant, although she had long grown accustomed to accomplishing feats of athletic endurance. Thus this new development is indeed a trial for her, but one that she shares with courage and candor.
In general, Cox’s writing is simple and straightforward. While clarity certainly lends to accessibility, sometimes the book can feel weighted down by minor details and dialogue. There are strong, resonant passages throughout, however; and while those are often the ones about swimming, many more than just swimmers can appreciate and be inspired by Cox’s journey through terrifying, unfamiliar circumstances while maintaining determination and gratitude.
Kim Hedges is an editor and book reviewer who swims year-round in the San Francisco Bay.
Swimming in the Sink
By: Lynne Cox.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 225 pages, $25.