There’s something you should know about me going into the summer of 2012. I look forward to the Olympic games (and in particular, the Summer Games) with a fervor bordering on fanaticism. (Usually I’m on the wrong side of that border too.) An energy that rarely possesses me takes over, and for two weeks, I’m glued to the television set, grateful for the technology that allows me to watch athletes from all over the world compete at levels far beyond what my body could ever comprehend.
I unabashedly cry during many of the events, although I can never predict beforehand which of them will have the most affecting stories. It’s the same feeling I get when I happen upon a show filming the return of soldiers to their families; although I’m adamantly against unnecessary violence, I can’t help but be swept away by the sheer joy of the reunion. The human spirit can endure so much for so long, and when, all at once, something truly great happens, the flood of joy and release is unbelievable.
When I watch athletes competing in the Olympics, I can’t help but think of the history that has brought us to this point – of the conflict, the bloodshed, the disregard for how similar we all, as human beings, are – and be amazed. Every two years, for a few weeks, the whole world watches together, and I love it with my whole being. The only trouble with something like the Olympics is that it’s hard to completely put aside that while some people win, many do not. It’s a competition that brings countries together, but at its heart, it is, still, a competition.
Maybe that’s why I fell so completely for Lynne Cox. In her memoir, Swimming to Antarctica, she embraces her tenacity and talent as a world-class open water swimmer with her desire to act as symbol of peace and partnership between feuding countries. She does it almost entirely without corporate sponsorship, instead relying on a network of friends and colleagues who believe, like her, that it is possible, nay – essential – to push the boundaries of human endurance. She doesn’t swim to get rich or famous; in fact, she has to bankrupt herself multiple times in order to do what she believes is possible. She does it because she has the drive, not only to perform at an elite level, but also to use her swims as gestures of goodwill.
When I picked up this book, Cox immediately won me over with her warmth and gift for storytelling. She begins the book by describing herself as a chubby nine-year old who loved to swim despite being slow, and as she discovers the world of open water swimming, I was swept up by her adventures. By the time I got to the black and white photographs in the middle of the book and realized she was still a well-padded swimmer even as an adult, I just about fell over with gratitude. Here was an athlete breaking boundaries no one in the world had dreamed of crossing and she wasn’t even a size 2! In fact, on one of her swims, a taxi cab driver points out she doesn’t look like a record-breaking swimmer and she just shakes it off.
If you’re gifted with a traditionally athletic body, it might not mean as much to you to discover a role model like this one as it does for me, but most of us do have something that sets us apart, a trait we desperately search for in our mentors. It may be some combination of race, culture, sexual preference, and religion, or it might be something as simple as meeting a person who does impossible things with a sense of humor (see my entry on John “The Penguin” Bingham).
No hero is the right fit for everyone, but Lynne Cox really checks a lot of boxes for me. She’s a woman. She started swimming mind-blowing distances in open water as a young teenager. She’s persevered without much money. She has respect for the planet and for the people she meets in different cultures. She sets insane goals for herself and manages to follow through even if it takes years. She is passionate about what she does. She has broken records all over the world. I tell you, it’s hard not to cheer on a person like this:
More than anything I now understood that no one achieves great goals alone. It didn’t matter to New Zealanders that I wasn’t from their country. It only mattered that I was trying to swim their strait. They had cheered me on for hours, and in doing so, they had cheered the same human spirit within themselves. Through the Cook Strait crossing, I realized that a swim can be far more than an athletic adventure. It can become a way to bridge the distance between people and nations. During the Cook Strait swim, we were united in a human endurance struggle that surpassed national borders. (pg 145)
My favorite site for more information on Lynne Cox is here.