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Beneath the surface

Lynne Cox is one of the greatest swimmers alive, having conquered vast distances in oceans. But when she takes up diving, the water suddenly becomes unfamiliar.

September 23, 2003|Lynne Cox

IT SEEMS ABSURD, EVEN TO ME. BUT I WAS nervous as I stepped into the water for the first big test -- scared, to be honest. Swim 200 yards. Fine. Tread water for 10 minutes. Fine. Ridiculously fine, if you judge the situation solely by my response to a question our instructor shouted as we bobbed and dog paddled in the lukewarm pool he uses to gauge the skills of his beginning scuba students.

"What's the farthest you've ever swum?"

"Uh," I mumbled, thinking back to age 15, when I first swam from England to France. "Thirty-three miles."

That time I set a men's and women's record freestyling across the English Channel in 9 hours, 57 minutes. Since then, I've been the first person to swim across the Bering Strait, from Alaska to Siberia; the first to swim across the Strait of Magellan at the tip of South America. I've swum across Lake Baikal in Siberia, across the Gulf of Aqaba -- from Egypt to Israel -- and last year I jumped off a boat and swam a mile to the frozen shore of Antarctica, dodging icebergs and accompanied on the final stretch by curious penguins.

As I often explain to interviewers, I'm hydrophilic. I love all water -- rain, fountains, ponds, puddles and frigid oceans. I've spent my life swimming across water's surface, wrapped in waves, cradled by currents, caressed by the winds. Water always was about being light, buoyant. Going underwater wasn't natural at all.

Going under

This summer, I made a midlife decision to finally sink down and see the ocean from below. I immediately called a few friends for reassurance. The first told me her 16-year-old brother had drowned diving off California. The second recalled his first ocean dive off Florida: Someone kicked the regulator out of his mouth. He panicked, scratched his way to the surface and never dived again.

Another friend, however, told me that nothing compared with the tranquillity of scuba diving. There was bliss in his voice. His were the words I held onto.

That doesn't mean I wasn't scared. For one thing, I loathed the idea of putting on a wetsuit. I do my distance swimming in a Lycra swimsuit, shunning even the grease some swimmers use as thin insulation. My skin is part of my sensory radar, part of the system that keeps me attuned to the tactile pleasure of what I'm doing and alert to the internal and external threats -- temperatures, currents -- that can kill.

Then there are the weights. Scientists say my swimming success stems, in part, from a perfect combination of muscle and body fat. On the water's surface, I float like a dolphin and move fast. The researchers who've studied me say I have neutral buoyancy. In less clinical moments, they go Zen and say, I'm "at one with the water."

Wriggling into thick black neoprene and strapping on a lead belt gave me the willies. The first time I slid into the pool brought me to the brink of an anxiety attack. I had never felt heavy in water before, and I couldn't get that Nicole Kidman movie, "The Hours," out of my mind. I felt as if I were the Virginia Woolf character who loaded her pockets with rocks and walked into the river to die. With the weights and tank and regulator, I felt as if I were wearing a garbage can. And my body was working against me, making me float, making me clumsy.

I needed to adjust. For inspiration, I decided to watch the experts. Before my Antarctic swim, I studied seals and penguins. This time I went to Sweetie Thai in Cypress, my favorite Thai restaurant. I picked a table near a 50-gallon saltwater aquarium and sat watching the parrotfish, tangs and angelfish as they elevatored up and down, hovered, balanced.

Christine Thacker, an ichthyologist at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, later explained that most fish have swim bladders. "They take in gas through their mouths or through diffusion in their bloodstream. They add and subtract the gas automatically, the way you breathe. They don't have air spaces in their bodies to regulate like people do."

That was what I needed to know. I'd have to work on my hovering. Meanwhile, if I swam at a slow, constant rate, I'd have the balance to which I'm accustomed.

To complete our certification program, our instructor piloted us from Long Beach Harbor to Catalina Island on a boat called the Contender.

I've swum that channel twice. To avoid high winds, I swam it at night. Daylight swims are strange enough, more about feeling changes in the water temperature and currents, more mental navigation than seeing. In fact, in the English Channel I once swam and swam through what I thought was a vast bed of kelp. When I finally focused, it turned out to be thousands of heads of lettuce that had fallen off a ship. At night, the sensory experience is odder still. Sometimes I can see my hands moving, pale under my body, bubbles rolling off my fingers. Sometimes I see phosphorescent contrails left by fish.

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