I am mostly concluding this review to point you to the comments in the DW version of the previous post on this book, in which Rydra Wong recommends a truly amazing set of books and articles, most of which I had never even heard of, by thoughtful athletes in unusual sports who write about why they do what they do and what it feels like. I am very interested in mind-body issues, and these sorts of books are an excellent source of writing on it that is actually good and not just an annoying stew of vagueness, fifth-hand Zen, and blaming the reader for sundry failures of body and mind.

The second half of Cox's book has her pursuing her US/Soviet swim, a darkly humorous endeavor in which she is spied on by some seriously incompetent FBI agents, repeatedly bangs her nose against the Iron Curtain, and ends up with the CIA and KGB simultaneously tapping her phone. No one can quite believe that she really is doing this because she wants to, and primarily because it's the most challenging thing she can think of, rather than for some dark political purpose in which she is merely the cover. (She does, in fact, have a political purpose, but it's secondary and personal: she hopes her swim might have a sort of butterfly effect on US-Soviet relations, showing both sides that they are human beings, not the Evil Other.)

However, the same persistence that makes her a great swimmer enables the swim to happen - she keeps banging down doors until both governments, rather bewilderedly, decide that maybe they can make political hay of it. She makes the swim, and the butterfly effect actually does seem to happen. So for a while Cox does a number of other swims intended to both challenge herself and act as gestures of goodwill between countries. These are all vividly described, as she faces off with sharks, ice bergs, sea snakes, ice sharp enough to slice a boat's hull in half, and her own cold and exhaustion.

But eventually, she can't resist the ultimate swim: Antarctica. This is in water so cold that no one is sure it is even survivable. Once again, she returns to the researchers and their rectal thermometers. This time technology has improved and they want her to swallow a mini-thermometer and data-gatherer, emphasizing that it's very expensive and they need to get it back, both to download the data and because it's re-usable - "Just use a plastic bag!" Cox, suspicious: "Am I the first person to swallow this thing?" The researcher assures her that she is, while accidentally also making it clear that she won't be the last.

The reason I read this book was a brief article on Cox's swim which noted that before the swim, her teeth had to be specially sealed and some of her fillings removed and replaced, because otherwise they would shatter from the cold. That, I thought, was hardcore. At the end of the book, she notes offhandedly that the nerve damage she sustained from the cold (which she only barely mentions otherwise) is repairing itself, and she's resting while looking forward to the next thing.

Once again, highly recommended if you like this sort of thing.

Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long-Distance Swimmer
I'm only halfway through this memoir of a world-record cold-water swimmer, which I am greatly enjoying, but I had to share a few excerpts.

Memoirs by athletes who are famous in non-famous sports are often very interesting: they're not about being famous and meeting other famous people and (often) getting addicted to drugs/fame/sex, they're about what it actually feels like to do their sport. (Also, they're way more likely to be written by the athlete rather than a ghost writer.)

The best ones are usually by people whose sports involve a lot of endurance and are at least somewhat solo (rather than team sports; you're competing as much against yourself as against others.) I am very interested in physicality, people's relationships to their bodies, the mind-body connection, and pushing the limits of the mind and body, so I like that sort of thing. Especially when interesting locales are involved. People who get seriously into things like rock climbing, long-distance swimming, mountaineering, etc, tend to have mindsets that would not be out of place in a Zen temple.

Cox discovered an aptitude for cold-water, long-distance swimming as a child; she was rather hilariously inept at all other sports, and had a three-year battle with a PE teacher who hated her and kept refusing to excuse her from volleyball to do stuff like train to set the world record swimming the English Channel at age fourteen. Cox was completely self-motivated; her family supported but did not push her.

At this point she is looking for new frontiers. This is all swimming in oceans, not pools. While stymied in her hope of swimming from Alaska to the Soviet Union by 1) everyone telling her that the water is so cold that she would die in ten minutes, 2) her only landing point being a Soviet SPY BASE which they understandably did not want to let an American on to, she joins a study on cold water swimming led by Dr. William McCafferty and Dr. Barbara Drinkwater (seriously), partly to pass the time and partly in the hope that she'll learn something that will enable her to swim in water that normally kills people.

Dr. Drinkwater explains that men have less body fat, and so tend to sink. Women have more, and so tend to float. But… "You're different. You have neutral buoyancy. That means your body density is exactly the same as seawater. Your proportion of fat to muscle is perfectly balanced so you don't float or sink in the water; you're at one with the water. We've never seen anything like this before."

Cox is fascinated by this finding, which meshes with both her abilities and her sense that she is, in fact, one with sea water. But they want to see how she reacts in a natural environment, not in a lab, so Dr. McCafferty and his wife walk their dog on the beach while she does her daily workout in the ocean.

Before and after these workouts, I'd hide behind a bush and take my core temperature using a rectal thermometer, the only way to get an accurate reading after an immersion in cold water. I always made a point of telling Dr. McCafferty my temperature just as joggers were passing; they'd give him quizzical looks, since it appeared to them that he was talking to the bushes.

Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long-Distance Swimmer


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