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THE SUNDAY PROFILE : Parting the Waters : On Monday, Lynne Cox of Los Alamitos will attempt a symbolic 'peace swim' in the Middle East's Gulf of Aqaba. In some ways, it's a goal she's been building to for 22 years.

October 16, 1994|SUSAN HOWLETT | Special to The Times

SEAL BEACH — Lynne Cox begins her final miles of training in U.S. waters by facing the shore and crashing backward into the surf. She is going against the current again, and she does it with a childlike grin you can see from the across the sand.

The regulars watching her from the pier wave at the Los Alamitos swimmer who, during 22 years of setting international endurance records, has become something of a hometown hero.

It started at the tender age of 15, when she shattered the women's and men's world records for swimming the English Channel. She went on to become the only person to brave 40-degree water and swim Russia's Bering Strait and has made history by crossing the Beagle Channel between Argentina and Chile, the Spree River between former East and West Berlin, the shark-infested waters of the Cape of Good Hope and Siberia's Lake Baikal, the world's deepest and coldest freshwater lake.

Now, Cox and her half-dozen crew members are in Israel, where Monday she will mark a six-year quest by attempting a 14-mile swim across the Gulf of Aqaba--a symbolic "peace swim" in waters that link Israel, Egypt and Jordan.

"I don't know what it's going to take to get into Jordanian waters," she says after ripping off her blue goggles following the three-mile training swim. "It always comes down to the last minute. . . .

"But after all of the work, it's always great to finally get into the water. It's like being an artist. You've put out all the paint, and you've gotten everything ready, and you can finally pick up the brush."

Quietly articulate, the 37-year-old brunette seems an interesting blend of political intellect and athletic ability.

She has thrown out the many medals and trophies collected over years of competitive swimming. She still lives with her parents, teaches swimming, lectures, does some writing. She makes it clear that she is not the kind of American athlete who shills for running shoes or breakfast cereal. All she wants, she says with a bashful smile, is a world without war.

For this swim, she finds a special irony in the fact that she will be stroking all 14 miles of the two-day effort against the current.

"They asked me if I wanted to change my course and swim the other way," says Cox, who scheduled the event to celebrate the Camp David accords and the ongoing peace process between Jordan and Israel.

"But against the current really describes the whole thing," she says, "and the whole peace process."

*

Just three years after Albert Cox, a radiologist, and his wife, Estelle, an artist, moved Lynne and her swimming siblings to Southern California from New Hampshire in 1970, Lynne made her mark by swimming the English Channel.

"My parents were a stable influence of encouragement," says Cox, whose brother David, 39, runs a recreation department. Sister Laura, 35, is a geneticist who coaches swimming, and sister Ruth, 32, coaches water polo and teaches.

"I remember that they used to give us swimming lessons in the bathtub when we were really little," she says. "We started competing (in New Hampshire), but all of the good coaches were in California, so they moved us out here."

It was after the English Channel swim when Cox became intensely interested in the world around her. By her late teens, she was already focusing on global peace efforts.

It wasn't a tangible decision, she says, that lead her to meld her athletic ability with her visions of joining countries at odds. Now, the days when she swam for trophies and medals seem like a lifetime ago.

"I don't even remember exactly why I threw (the trophies) out," she says. "We used to have them displayed all over the place, but I was done with that. They went into a box, and then in the trash. I don't swim for that anymore."

There was not one particular event that made Cox the altruistic person she is today, but there came a time when the swimming for records just didn't cut it. She majored in history at UC Santa Barbara and learned about the give-and-take involved with attaining peace.

"It's the idea that a little compromise on both sides can build a bridge, and by allowing me to swim, they're all doing that," she says. "It takes a good many years to build a bridge and just seconds to blow it up."

Her parents, retired, say they find it difficult to understand their daughter's drive and motivation, yet they watch in awe as she pieces together each history-making swim.

They say the Gulf of Aqaba event is of special concern in the wake of Saddam Hussein's current threats and the sudden mobilization of U.S. forces to Kuwait.

"We worry about her safety because it's a very volatile part of the world today, with a lot of out-of-control people. But we just keep our fingers crossed and hope everything goes smoothly," her father says.

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