Nobody Else Will Ever Do It, Says Coach of Swim Feat

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Times Staff Writer

Lynne Cox may be one of a kind.

“Nobody else will ever do this,” Joe Coplan said Saturday, “not in a hundred years. She’s the only one.”

Coplan, 41, is a long-distance swim coach for U.S. Swimming, the national governing body for the sport. The group neither sanctioned nor sponsored Cox’s swim in the Bering Strait on Friday, but Coplan was the project director.

The 30-year-old Los Alamitos woman swam from this tiny, rocky island to larger Big Diomede Island, Soviet territory on the other side of the International Dateline, in 2 hours, 5 minutes.


Although the straight-line distance is 2.7 statute miles--so close that the two sides watch each other’s movements with telescopes, when the fog lifts--Cox estimated that she swam about five miles overall because of currents. The strait itself is 53 miles wide at its most narrow point.

The water temperature was 44 degrees Fahrenheit, about like the average glass of ice water, but that was unusually warm for the Bering. It may have been even colder near the end of the ordeal, when she was fighting the current within hailing distance of Soviet officials, who awaited her with what was a surprisingly warm reception, literally and figuratively.

Ironically, international public relations almost did her in.

Cox had made several other cold-water swims--never in water that cold for that long--in which her basic body temperature of 97.6 Fahrenheit had never dropped.

“This time it dropped,” Coplan said.

After Cox climbed out of the water, her temperature was measured at 94, which is within two degrees of hypothermia, when the body’s normal functions start to shut down. Dr. William Keatinge of the London Medical College calculated that she was into “marginal” hypothermia at the time.

Cox was within 50 yards of the sheer rock cliffs of Big Diomede about an hour and 45 minutes into the swim but altered course south for half a mile, against the current, to where Soviet officials had set up a warming tent and buffet tables.

In that last half-mile her temperature dropped dramatically.

“We put her into a slightly hypothermic state by trying to meet the Soviets at the site they set up for us,” Coplan said.


One thing Cox did have going for her was the relatively ideal weather and currents, in an area where they change so quickly that the native Eskimos hesitate to predict them.

On Friday, the water was smooth and the current about three-fourths of a knot, whereas, according to the Eskimos, it can run as strong as 10 knots, which would have carried Cox far past Big Diomede toward the Arctic Circle.

Coplan said sunshine might have warmed the surface temperature some, but it was eerily foggy and quiet as Cox nodded her head, then ducked into the water and started to stroke as large flocks of auklets and gulls circled her little flotilla.

“That made it more dramatic,” Coplan said with a shrug.

The fleet of little spectator boats that followed her to the International Dateline left a trail of red and blue balloons that floated in place in her wake, indicating little current.

But even with the conditions, Cox’s talent, her natural fatty insulation and her determination--even with all that going for her--the bid was borderline at the end.

“So if she barely made it,” Coplan said, “I don’t see where anybody else would even come close.


“Some people are much faster swimmers than Lynne but don’t have her ability to withstand cold. I know them all. There’s no one else that could have done this.”

Keatinge said: “I expect a few more will try now, but the odds are very much against them, (although) it would be easy in a wet suit, for a good swimmer.”

Cox wore neither wet suit nor the grease often applied by long-distance swimmers to ward off the cold.

First, that would have rendered the experimental part of the effort useless. Also, Cox said, “If they had to pull me out of the water, it would be very difficult if I were all covered with grease.”

Cox isn’t concerned about anyone trying to equal her achievement.

“Anyone can try, if they think they can do it,” she said, “if they get the right clearance.”

She was referring to Soviet approval, which arrived only the day she had first hoped to swim. But on the day she swam, they couldn’t do enough for her.


While the veteran marathon swimmer regarded the crossing as the pinnacle of her 16-year career, she had no thoughts about either retiring or planning the next one:

“It’s never it. You’re never done. You don’t top it. You just set other goals. It might not necessarily be in swimming.”

It was a big day for the 158 Eskimos on Little Diomede.

Cox’s swim not only brought them international recognition but reunited their mayor, Pat Omiak, with two women relatives he hadn’t seen in nearly 40 years. In 1948 the Soviet Union moved all the Eskimos off Big Diomede to the Siberian mainland. But for this occasion, they transported the two women back.

Then, late in the day, a dead, 30-foot gray whale was spotted floating off the south end of the island--a rare find.

The Eskimos said the whale had been killed by killer whales and left adrift. The meat was spoiled, but they cut off the outer skin, called muktuk , in filets, to be stored, dried and eaten.

Then the carcass was cut adrift to float north, where sea predators will finish it off.

The expedition departed Little Diomede on Saturday. Cox and Coplan were scheduled to appear on national TV from New York on Monday night.

They have also been invited to visit Moscow and have indicated they will accept. They have not heard from the White House.