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Miracle on Lake Baikal : Latest Swim Feat Raises Soviets' Admiration of Lynne Cox to New Heights

August 27, 1988|RICH ROBERTS | Times Staff Writer

LISTVYANKA, Soviet Union — Glorious sea Baikal;

Glorious ship, bell of fish.

Hey wind, we don't have far to sail good fellow . . .

--Siberian folk song

Prisoners escaping from Siberian exile in floating fish barrels have written songs about it; for centuries the Russians have built legends around it, and environmentalists from around the world have joined forces to guard its beauty and purity.

The mystique of mammoth Lake Baikal borders on mythology, and now Lynne Cox has had a long swim in it, adding to the folklore of this 25-million-year-old resource in the Central Siberian Plateau of Asia that is regarded as one of the natural wonders of the world. And for her feat, she now is regarded as a natural wonder herself by many of the 280 million people in the Soviet Union.

"Today, we have witnessed a miracle on Lake Baikal," Leonid Yakovenko said, leading off a series of champagne toasts at an informal two-hour banquet Friday night.

Yakovenko is chairman of the Irkutsk Regional Sports Committee for the Soviet Union--the top government sports official in the area. A few hours earlier, Cox had finished swimming a 7-mile course--actually a 10-mile circuitous rout because of currents--in 4 hours 19 minutes 18 seconds, withstanding the lake's water temperatures in the low 50s far longer than anyone before her.

Because of the lake's size, temperature and logistical problems, the course she swam did not actually take her across the lake but rather from one cape to another cape on the same side of the lake, across the mouth of the Angara River.

Yakovenko said that Cox, 31, of Los Alamitos, had defied a centuries-old legend that recognizes Baikal as a male entity and the wide Angara as his woman flowing out of him.

"Now we know that one more woman was able to win his heart," Yakovenko said. "We take it as a challenge to all Russian people."

The Soviets were so impressed by Cox's determination before the swim that they already had planned to name the starting point for her: Cape Lynne Cox.

Now, said Anatolii Kuryan, Yakovenko's deputy who managed the Soviet arrangements, "It will be fitting when Lynne comes back to Baikal the next time. There will be plaques where she started and finished."

Yevgeni Gringaut, editor of Olympic Panorama magazine in Moscow, said before the swim: "Tomorrow we will be witnessing an event of historical importance--more important than the Olympic Games, because in the Olympics no one risks his life."

The Soviets' admiration for Cox and her achievements--she first impressed them with her crossing of the colder Bering Strait a year ago--apparently knows no bounds. About 3,000 residents from the area brought their children to watch her finish Friday.

The Bering Strait feat was major news across the Soviet Union. This one also made the front pages and topped the evening news.

And yet in her own country she was able to arouse only minimal corporate financial support and lukewarm media interest.

What do the Soviets see in her that her own country does not?

Vitaly Medyanikov, the Soviets' state swim coach who rowed the guide boat, said: "Hundreds of thousands of people are setting records each year, but only one was able to do what Lynne did today.

"I placed Lynne's deed above all world records. No record can live long, but what she did, these things are made forever."

Medyanikov also was on the rocky beach of Big Diomede Island--Rhatmanova--when Cox stumbled ashore from her Bering Strait swim.

"She is the first woman to break the Soviet border," he said, joking. "Perhaps we should welcome those people, because maybe then the borders would fall down."

That, of course, is what Cox's efforts are all about.

Cox's determination to stage such feats, overcoming strong political and financial obstacles, and then pull them off through physical ordeals, is evident.

Only two days before the swim, when a forecast for bad weekend weather arrived, she decided to go with only one more day's workout to acclimate herself to the cold water. Apparently, it was the right decision. Today's forecast is for rain.

Friday night she told her hosts: "I'd like to thank you for making a dream come true. One person might conceive an idea, but many people make it happen."

In her case, considering the difficulties, few even try.

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