EPISODE 370
Lynne Cox
Breaking the Limits of Human Potential (with Lynne Cox)

Mark speaks with Lynne Cox, a long-distance open-water swimmer, writer and speaker. Lynne holds over 50 world records and firsts, including setting the record for swimming the English Channel (twice). Lynne was also the first and only person to ever swim between the United States and the Soviet Union in the Bering Strait. This effort took her 11 years to coordinate during the height of the Cold War, and it helped the world to see that there was a very short distance between these two nations (just 2.7 miles).

Lynne Cox
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Show Notes

Today, Commander Divine speaks with Lynne Cox, a long-distance open-water swimmer, writer and speaker. Lynne holds over 50 world records and firsts, including setting the record for swimming the English Channel (twice). Lynne was also the first and only person to ever swim between the United States and the Soviet Union in the Bering Strait. This effort took her 11 years to coordinate during the height of the Cold War, and it helped the world to see that there was a very short distance between these two nations (just 2.7 miles). In this episode, Lynne discusses what it takes to make record-breaking swims, the fascinating process of greatness, and her incredible interactions with dogs, whales, and other creatures in the water.

Key Takeaways:

  • Find the others. When asked why she was compelled to embark on such unprecedented swims, Lynne said it’s because swimming is her “song in the world.” When you follow your song in the world, you tune into who you are and are driven to figure out what you’re capable of doing. But more importantly, finding your song in the world almost always involves other people. How do you get a team of people around you that can complement your passion? Together, you can do something that’s never been done.
  • How do people become who they are? Throughout all her varied interests (swimming, history, exercise physiology), Lynne says that her common thread of inspiration is figuring out how people become who they are, and how they influence change in a positive way. Who was Gandhi before Gandhi? Who was Amelia Earhart before she became who she was? The interesting part is found in the in-between.
  • Everyone is a genius. Lynne owes much of her contributions to the amazing help of other people, from the teams who helped her on her swims, to those who gave her advice about book publishing. There are so many different little worlds out there that you can tap into through others. And if you can just connect at one point, it leads you to directions you couldn’t have dreamed of on your own.
  • Small openings lead to bigger movements. It took Lynne 11 years to orchestrate her historic swim in the Bering Strait due to border issues in the Soviet Union. When the Bering Strait ports were finally opened, Gorbachev and Reagan stood up and toasted “swim.” President Gorbachev said it illustrated how close to each other the two countries are (just 2.7 miles apart). Shortly after that, the Berlin Wall came down; some say this was partially due to the influence of the opening of the Bering Strait ports. People around the world saw this opening and then went toward it. 
  • The two most important life skills. Lynne says that swimming tops her list of life’s most important skills… but reading is a very close second.

Quotes:

“Why do you do it? … my mom was asking me this because she’s an artist… And I just sort of said, well, so why do you create art? Why do you have to do that? And she looked at me like, Oh, I get it. I said, it’s basically because of who you are and what you want to figure out what you’re capable of doing. You know, it’s your song in the world. You have so many gifts that you’re given. And then how do you hone that? And then how do you get a team of people around you that can complement that. And together, you can do something that’s never been done.”

“I studied history in college. And I also, you know, when you’re asking about inspiration, I think that one of the reasons I studied history and Exercise Physiology and a bunch of other stuff… was because I really wanted to figure out how people become who they are, and how they influence change in a positive way. So who was Gandhi before Gandhi, and who was Amelia Earhart, before she was who she was?”

“People are amazingly helpful… and they know so much. And that’s, again, back to your talk about do you want to go to a book signing? Or a bunch of them? It’s like, absolutely. Because people are… there are all these little worlds. And if you can just connect at one point, that just leads you another way. It’s so incredible.”

“And how long did it take? Two hours, six minutes and 11 years? Yeah. And so it was great, because, you know, when they signed the INF missile treaty, Gorbachev and Reagan stood up and toasted swim. And President Gorbachev said it showed how close to each other the two countries are, and how the relations between the two countries are improving. And then shortly after that, the Berlin Wall came down and friends of mine in Germany said because the Bering Strait ports are open, because of that thought, then that influenced the Wall coming down, that people around the world saw this opening and then went toward it. It was a really long process and people will decide they want to do a swim and they don’t really realize how much preparation goes into it, especially when you’re trying to do something that’s politically significant, that it’s not just an athletic event that you’re trying to change things.”

“And so the story is really about, how does this amazing person… help the dog reach [its] potential? …And that’s really what interests me a lot in life is that process. How does somebody become a great musician? Where do they start, and go from there… I love that, I love seeing a person who is afraid of the water, swim. I mean, that is like one of the greatest gifts you can ever see. Because to me, swimming is like one of the most important life skills and the other one is reading.”

Mark Divine 0:05
Coming up on the Mark Divine Show.

Lynne Cox 0:07
So the idea for me was, I wanted to swim across from the United States to the Soviet Union to open the border for the first time in over forty years. And they, the Inuit on little Dynein, couldn’t cross that border. And actually, for me, it took 11 years because I was trying to get permission to cross this border and to get it opened. And I wrote to Brezhnev and then Andropov and Chernenko. And finally, Gorbachev, but in the meantime, I went to senators and congressmen and State Department people and all sorts of people for 11 years.

Mark Divine 0:43
This is Mark Divine and I am the host of the Mark Divine Show. On this show, I explore what it means to be fearless through the lens of the world’s most inspirational, compassionate and resilient leaders. My guests include notable folks from all walks of life, Stoic philosophers, psychedelic researchers, entrepreneurs, CEOs, and even people who have swum the Bering Strait. Like my guest today, Lynne Cox. Lynne Cox was born in Boston, Massachusetts, grew up in LA, or Los Alamitos, California, and she set open water swimming records all over the world. Without a wetsuit. She was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame. And she has written many articles which have appeared in publications such as The New Yorker, New York Times, LA Times, and she lives in Long Beach, California. And she’s written a book called Tales of Al about water rescue dogs. And she’s just a fascinating lady. So super excited to have Lynne with me today, Lynne. Nice to meet you.

Thanks so much for joining me today, Lynne. I really, really appreciate it and I’m super excited to meet you and kind of learn more about your inspiration and your story and some of the cool things you’ve done.

Lynne Cox 1:51
Thanks so much. It’s really cool to be talking to you today, Mark.

Mark Divine 1:54
And where are you right now? Where do you live?

Lynne Cox 1:56
Well, I live in Long Beach, California, but I’m on a large book tour, 46 events for the next, actually halfway through. So something like three more weeks. And it’s been great. Right now I’m in East Hampton, New York.

Mark Divine 2:10
I’m curious, how has that worked out, because I’ve launched a number of books. And I’ve always resisted that book tour. I’ve done virtual stuff like this, but I resisted getting on the road because I didn’t know if it’d be worth the time away.

Lynne Cox 2:22
It’s worth the time because you make so many new contacts, you meet old friends, I saw somebody I swam with when I was eight years old. And I saw somebody I met 20 years ago, who’s now an open water swimmer bringing her daughter on board. And so you have these conversations that you would never have otherwise. And it allows for so much thought and interaction that you just can’t get from doing a Zoom.

Mark Divine 2:46
Yeah, 100% makes sense that yousay that. So it’s more about the totality of the experience, as opposed to just getting eyeballs coming to the books. I love that.

Lynne Cox 2:54
Absolutely, it makes all the difference. I mean, what’s the difference between meeting somebody in person and on Zoom, it’s just really different.

Mark Divine 3:01
The other thing is, you know, so much goes into writing a book, and you really throw your heart, your life and you change, as you know, when you write a book. And so why not go out and celebrate and take time off to like, connect with people and help them understand what you’ve learned and how you’ve grown as a result of the experience, it’s just part of sharing your life.

Lynne Cox 3:20
Right, and you get to share with them, you’re right in front of them, you’re tangible, and it really makes a stronger connection. And then people think about what you’ve written or what you’re talking about, and come back to you with all sorts of new information that you hadn’t considered before. So it’s this really collaborative work that occurs, not just because you’ve written the book, but the outcome afterwards. I’ve made so many, I’ve learned so much, in the last three weeks while I’ve been on the book tours, stuff I didn’t even know about

Mark Divine 3:47
Now was it your publicist that arranged the tour or the publisher? Or how did that work out?

Lynne Cox 3:51
Actually, it is a publicist, who also worked in conjunction with my husband, because he’s working all over the country. And so we tried to connect that and then I’m speaking all over the country. So we tried to work it out so that I was doing

Mark Divine 4:02
Nice, yeah. So it’s multifaceted. Wherever you go to speak, you arrange book stuff, and wherever he’s going, and you’re gonna go with him, you arrange book stuff, coordinate travel expenses, and all that.

Lynne Cox
Exactly.
Mark Divine
Well, you just inspired me. I think next time I got a book out there, I’m going to do a book tour.

Lynne Cox 4:17
I think it would be really fantastic. Because you know, people would love to hear your stories and also see you in person. I think it makes all the difference.

Mark Divine 4:27
Well, your story is fascinating. Let’s go back to you. And, you know, I’m always curious. Like, it’s so unique. Not many people want to swim the highest lake in the world and get potentially eaten by piranhas or whatever the heck is in… when I read that, I was like, oh my god, it’s like my worst nightmare. Like not many people want to do that. What inspired you Lynne to like, get into this open ocean swimming of these bodies of water that are just no humans really think of swimming?

Lynne Cox 4:59
Well actually was because of a mother when I was on a swim team in New Hampshire when I was eight or nine years old saw me swimming in the pool on a very cold, rainy day. And Mrs. Milligan saw me out there alone and said, I bet someday you’re gonna swim the English Channel. And I just thought, if it’s this much fun of just being on the water in the waves in the rain in the hail on my own, I want to do that.

And so it took a long time, it seemed like, to come back and actually address that. But then my folks moved me along with my siblings to California, so we could train with Don Gambrel, who was the Olympic coach. And so he saw the potential in me.

Mark Divine
Olympic coach for pool swimming or for open?

Lynne Cox
Yeah, for pool swimming, because there wasn’t any open water swimming then at all.

Mark Divine
I didn’t think so.

Lynne Cox
Yeah, no, but he was a pioneer. And he basically adapted the training for pool swimming for Olympians to the ocean for me. And so I trained and if I was swimming 6 miles or 10 miles, my mom or my dad would walk Long Beach, California or Skid Beach or Huntington and help keep pace for me.

Mark Divine 6:03
I saw that you swam up to Catalina. You know, I’ve taken the ferry out there, and I’ve taken a rib out there. Tell me about that swim. That’s a pretty cool, you know, a feat in and of itself.

Lynne Cox 6:13
Yeah, I was 14 years old. And I did it with 2 other 14 year olds and one other 12 year old and we started at midnight. Because you know, at that time, the sea is calmer, the wind is down. And we started around Diver’s Cove on the isthmus and headed toward the mainland.

Mark Divine 6:28
Okay, so you swam back from Catalina to the mainland.

Lynne Cox 6:31
The first time I did it. And then the second time I did it, I swam the other direction because my brother held the record from the island to the mainland. So I decided I wanted to try to break the record on the mainland to the island.

Mark Divine 6:42
Of course, you can’t let him beat you. Do you have to worry about currents, like sweeping you down toward Mexico without or how does that…

Lynne Cox 6:49
Actually, there are strong currents. And usually when you come into the Palos Verdes area, if you can, if you’re lucky to hit that along the California coast, there’s always a strong current. And so some people will just be swept down and don’t ever get in. And that’s when you really have to turn on the endurance and work on the sprint and cut through the current and get to shore.

When I did it the first time, I did it with a group of kids. And it took us 12 and a half hours. The second time I did it, it took me eight hours and 48 minutes. And so I broke the overall time for that swim. But it was all about great guidance and navigation, stuff you know about, that helps you get to where you want to go and you have to have really people that know what they’re doing.

Mark Divine 7:32
When I last was in that body of water, I saw I think two different species of dolphins, I saw this… I don’t know what kind of fish is called. It’s like got like a completely flat body.

Lynne Cox
Mala Mala.

Mark Divine
Yeah, that’s right. A time before we found a shark that had been cut in half by something. I don’t know what, it must have been a propeller of a large ship or… it was weird and it was still alive. A strange, strangest experience there. So anyways, my point is, I’m curious, did you, what kind of wildlife did you see on these swims? And you know, do you have any curious creatures who you were like, what’s this?

Lynne Cox 8:09
When I was training to swim Catalina the second time, I had a baby, a gray whale that was lost and the fishermen on the pier in Seal Beach said stay with him and help him find his mother. So I spent five hours out there. And ended up writing a book called Grayson, that’s been translated into 23 languages now, but it’s that story of you’re 17 years old, and the fisherman tells you, help him find his mother. And you don’t think about, how do you do that?

Mark Divine 8:36
How am I supposed to know where Mommy is?

Lynne Cox 8:38
Exactly. So I’ve done that, swam with dolphins, swam with sharks, had some really close encounters, or one close encounter with a bronze whaler shark when I was swimming around the Cape of Good Hope. At the tip of Africa, there was a 12 foot bronze whaler that came up for me. And I had along with me, guiding me, were special forces, basically from the Cape Town Police Department. And there was one guy holding a spear gun named Doug, who was being towed by a rope from the speed boat. And he saw the shark and had to shoot the shark in the dorsal fin and the shark bit the spear and pulled it out of its fin and then swam away, but we were 400 meters from shore and the blood in the water started attracting other sharks. So I swam very quickly to shore and then he explained that he had to shoot the shark because it was going to bite me. And so I asked, Is the shark gonna be okay? And he said, Yes, that’s why I hit it in the dorsal fin. But these guys were just incredible. They went spearfishing there knowing there are all sorts of sharks, white sharks in the area, and it didn’t faze them at all. Not at all. Not at all.

Mark Divine 9:42
Yeah, I actually had a conversation yesterday with a surfer who had lost his leg to a shark and didn’t resent sharks actually, it turned his whole life around to conservation issues around sharks. And it was a really inspiring story and got bitten a second time, but the second time, the shark bit his prosthetic leg. So it didn’t get much to eat that day. What are the chances of that, right?

Lynne Cox 10:07
What part of the world was he in?

Mark Divine 10:10
Hawaii the first time. And the second time, I’m not sure actually, it wasn’t Hawaii because it was on a photo shoot. That’s fascinating. So each one of these expeditions that you did were highly coordinated. It wasn’t like you’re like, Oh, I’m just going to jump into the Bering Sea and see if I can make it to Russia. I mean, you had chase boats and safety swimmers and stuff like that. Explain to us just how it worked out?

Lynne Cox 10:33
Well, I was really lucky because my dad had been in the Navy, he had been a Corpsman on Iwo Jima and side pan to Dian. So he was all about preparation and training. And so he really helped me figure out how to get a team together to go with me on these different swims, how you pick a crew, how you get a group of doctors to make sure your swim in Antarctica is safe, if it can be. And so the long term acclimatization to the cold water was something that he taught me how to do, to basically train for the English Channel, I was sleeping with my windows up at night to let the cool air in California, so it’d be mid 40s. And I’d wear light clothes all day long. So in the winter, never a coat or a blanket so I could get my body temperature used to colder environment.

And then through the years, I kept stepping it down and going into colder and colder water. And the coldest I did was a swim off of Greenland in 26.6, just a quarter of a mile, but it was in a swimsuit, cap and goggles. And it was so challenging, right across Disco Bay. But again, it was like why do you do it? And it’s like, I finally really came up to… my mom was asking me this because she’s an artist, she was an artist. And I just sort of said, well, so why do you create art? Why do you have to do that? And she looked at me like, Oh, I get it. I said, it’s basically because of who you are and what you want to figure out what you’re capable of doing. You know, it’s your, your song in the world. You have so many gifts that you’re given. And then how do you hone that? And then how do you get a team of people around you that can complement that. And together, you can do something that’s never been done. And that’s what’s so exciting, because it’s not just jumping in and swimming, it’s figuring out how to do something like that, like the swim across the Strait of Magellan, getting in touch with the Chilean Navy and using their expertise and their frogmen to be able to help me get across through huge currents and whirlpools. That… it’s really exciting.

Mark Divine 12:26
Yeah, it’s like why do people climb Mount Everest? Or you know, or do anything? Anything like that? It’s because A, it’s curious to the human spirit to see if it can be done. And then what will you learn? How will you grow? You know what I mean?

Lynne Cox 12:41
Like, why did you do, why have you heard the career that you’ve had? Why haven’t you just sort of gone with the mainstream?

Mark Divine 12:47
Yeah, I could be back at the family business running the family business, which has been around since 1798, which all my siblings are involved in. And yet no, Mark has to go off, be a Navy Seal and, you know, get involved in teaching all this stuff. Yeah, I love that saying, it’s your song in the world. I mean, that’s, gosh, that would be a great title for your next book, by the way.

Lynne Cox 13:08
Actually, there’s, well this next book is called Tales of Al, the water rescue dog.

Mark Divine 13:12
I meant the book after that. When you’re ready to write it.

Lynne Cox 13:16
Actually, it’s already been done. It’s another water story, but it’s a children’s story. And it’s about a sea turtle. So I’m so excited about it, because I’ve never seen anything like this before. And the illustrator from England is a guy named Richard Jones and has done beautiful underwater illustrations and above water as well. But just to have that kind of…

Mark Divine 13:37
That’s gonna be a huge success. Because kids absolutely love turtles. And, you know, they’re so inspiring, I think.

Okay, we’re gonna take a short break here from the Mark Divine show, to hear a short message from one of our partners. And now back to the show.

Mark Divine
I want to come back to Tales of Al in a little while but I’m not done kind of learning about, like, what motivated you and what you learned. And I want to talk about the Bering Strait, like because that was in the height of the Cold War. And you know, there’s lots of news articles about that, because Gorbachev mentioned it, you know, in the INF signing with Reagan. I mean, what inspired that? What were the biggest challenges and what did you learn from that?

Lynne Cox 14:30
Well, I think that the inspiration came from my dad because he explained that here’s a little Diomede, the United States, and here’s big Diomede, the Soviet Union, and they’re only 2.7 miles apart. So the two superpowers are neighbors in the world. It’s not, you know, Moscow and the US.

Mark Divine
Yeah, most people don’t realize how close we are.

Lynne Cox
Yeah, so like you can be on little Diomede and see the Soviet Union right there.

Mark Divine 14:52
The reason why you know, Alaska is even part of the United States is because of Russia. Right?

Lynne Cox 14:57
Right. Seward’s folly, because Secretary of State Seward bought Alaska from the Russians. And so he had a vision. But if it hadn’t been, then that area could have been part of Russia. And what would the world have been then like? I studied history in college. And I also, you know, when you’re asking about inspiration, I think that one of the reasons I studied history and Exercise Physiology and a bunch of other stuff, but, was because I really wanted to figure out how people become who they are, and how they influence change in a positive way. So who was Gandhi before Gandhi, and who was Amelia Earhart, before she was who she was?

Mark Divine 15:33
You know what, that’s exactly why I do this podcast. And that’s why we’re having this conversation, because I’m so fascinated with the primal urge, or soul force that causes people to be who they are, in spite of their parents, in spite of their upbringing, in spite of all the forces that might work against them, you know, like, why do people shape themselves? You know, like you said, you express your song in the world. It’s fascinating to me.

Lynne Cox 15:57
It is, it is. And I think that seeing their process and seeing how they achieve things that hadn’t been done, is so useful to figure out, how can I make my way in the world and then beyond that, finding mentors who you just admire to help you get to where you want to go. You know, I’ve been so fortunate that when I was a kid, and I was swimming in a pool with Olympians, and I was the last person and I hated being last, just, you know, I wanted to do something well, and here you’re seeing excellence right there.

And then to go over to Gary Hall gold medal of Hong fosh, gold medalist Gunnar Larson from Sweden, the gold medalist and ask them, How do you do butterfly? Will you watch me swim? And they would do it, you know, they would help this little girl, I was no threat to them, but they would just like, Sure, let me show you, let me help you. And I’ve done that all through my life. I’ve been so fortunate to have people when I’ve been an author, being able to reach out to different authors, and Arthur Goldin, who wrote Memoirs of a Geisha, like, somebody wants me to write a blurb for them, how do you write a blurb? You know, stuff like that. And people are amazingly helpful, you know, just, and they know so much. And that’s, again, back to your talk about do you want to go to a book signing? Or a bunch of them? It’s like, Absolutely. Because people are all like, like, no, there are all these little worlds. And if you can just connect at one point, that just leads you another way. It’s so incredible.

Mark Divine 17:21
It is incredible. And I have this belief that there’s seven and a half billion geniuses on this planet. There’s also a few jerk geniuses, but you know, they just need to evolve a little bit more. But everyone’s got this intense creative capacity.

Lynne Cox 17:34
Right? And all they need is a little little push or a little support.

Mark Divine 17:39
Just need a little push sometimes and belief, you know, and the push can come in many ways. The motivation, belief, self esteem, opportunity. People in Ukraine right now aren’t necessarily saying, Well, I’m a creative genius. They’re thinking, holy shit, I’m gonna make sure I don’t get hit by the next missile coming in, you know? So life circumstances, opportunity. But at the fundamental level, every human being has this, this core capacity to be a genius, I think.

Lynne Cox 18:03
I think so, I think you’re totally there. I think that that’s so important that people realize that there’s something amazing and unique and each one of us and just get in the right direction, or the support, or somebody just saying, Yeah, you can do that. I was at a site book signing a couple days ago, and there were two women that had done the English Channel, and there was this young man who was the boyfriend of one of them. And he came over to me and he said, You know, I think I want to become a swimmer. But I’ve been afraid of the water. And I looked at him and I was like, you know, it’s all about breathing. It’s all about rhythm. It’s all about being relaxed. And if you can do that, you can swim. But looking at you, you’ve got the body of Michael Phelps, you’re long, you’re you’re strong looking, and so I knew that he was like taking that all in and I’m going yay, he’s gonna do this.

Mark Divine 18:53
Yeah, sometimes it’s just one touch point, right? That can change the trajectory of a life. It’s like pushing a body in motion to touch and then suddenly, you know, over time, it veers off in the right direction or new direction. So back to the Bering Strait. Okay, so your, your father helped you understand that planning and coordination. You had this inspiration to see how other people live… by the way, I’ve read a little bit about that area, and most people might not really recognize this because our image of Russia is kind of like a Moscow and, you know, the gritty, you know, funky hat wearing white, Anglo Saxon kind of looking person that has this guttural language and, and yet, you go to the Far East and people who live in that far Kamchatka Peninsula or whatever. They’re a lot like the Inuits I mean, they look like the Alaskans. They talk like them, you know, they’re very Asian, very native. They’re not very Russian. You know.

Lynne Cox 19:46
They’re native, they’re Inuit, they’re people in Magadan. There are people all over the Soviet Far East that are native, but there are also many, many Russians that had been during the purges moved to Siberia. So you have such an interesting mix of people that are really hardy people, really strong.

Mark Divine 20:04
They’re really largely independent, you know, there’s not a whole lot of interference from like the central control authorities out there because it’s so far away. And really the only way to get there is often by rail. And there’s not that many roads in Russia. I read yesterday there’s only 790,000 miles of roads compared to 4 million in the United States and the United States is like 40% of the size of Russia. So everything goes by train. That’s fascinating, isn’t it?

Lynne Cox 20:30
It is, it is, there is a cultural vibrance there that I thought was interesting, too, because you had all these Europeans that were sent to Siberia. So you have music, their cultural, classical music, you have great food, who would have thought in Siberia, but there were a lot of people from France and Italy that had been influenced. They were Russian, but they wound up in Siberia. And so we were eating food in Siberia going, this is really delicious. Very different.

Mark Divine 20:58
The other thing that was kind of interesting to me is that whole, you know, we think of… this is more philosophy, but we think of kind of Vedic philosophy as coming from India, but it extended all the way north into Siberia. So you find that same philosophy of the yogis in Siberia, and the east, which is fascinating.

Lynne Cox 21:19
You know, it is incredible how ideas move and how they get held on to.

Mark Divine 21:24
Okay, so back to this swim. Like you had to, I imagine, coordinate. You didn’t just show up on Russian soil, like, crawl out of the ocean and be like, Okay, what’s this?

Lynne Cox 21:35
Well, there had been, you know, even though there was no border that you could see, because the water… you can’t have a border on the water. The Inuit who lived on Little Diomede, were not permitted to go across that international dateline, which was also the border. So the idea for me was, I wanted to swim across from the United States to the Soviet Union to open the border for the first time in over forty years. And they, the Inuit on Little Diomede, couldn’t cross that border. And actually, by mistake, it had been a foggy day. And some of the elders who were walrus hunters were in one of their Oume acts or walrus skin boats, and they’d straight into Russian waters, or Soviet waters at that time. And they were removed and taken to Siberia and put in prison for 52 days. And the people on Little Diomede were terrified that they would never see their loved ones again, but then they were released. But it reinforced that there is a border that you don’t cross it, that you can’t stray and that this is not a place that you go to. So for me, it took 11 years, because I was trying to get permission to cross this border and to get it opened. And I wrote to Brezhnev and then Andropov. And Chenyenko. And finally, Gorbachev. But in the meantime, I want to senators and congressmen and State Department people and all sorts of people for 11 years.

Mark Divine 22:51
Where did the thought come for you? I mean, I’m sure people just first threw the letter in the trash can and then eventually, you know, got some attention. But who was where was the breakthrough?

Lynne Cox 23:01
The breakthrough really came from Ted Turner. He was doing Goodwill Games. And so I decided, I write to Turner and ask him if he knows how to get a hold of the Soviets. And so he then put me in touch with a man named Bob Walsh, who was the one that was working with the Soviet sports committee on behalf of Turner. And he then put me in touch with some people. And then I contacted other people at the State Department, who then started to take me seriously. And then eventually I started building a team of senators, of congressmen, of Congresswomen, of people in the Soviet Union, at the Soviet Foreign Ministry, at the sports committee, at the US, you know, it just, it was countless hours. It was huge. It was obsessive. It was just I’ve kind of figured out how to do this. And so, you know, you do it for five years, and six years and seven years and eight years. And finally, Gorbachev was coming out with the idea of Glasnost openness. And we were able to reach out to him finally and get his approval, but it was a huge journey. So somebody says, And how long did it take? Two hours, six minutes and 11 years? Yeah. And so it was great, because, you know, when they signed the INF missile treaty, Gorbachev and Reagan stood up and toasted swim. And President Gorbachev said it showed how close to each other the two countries are, and how the relations between the two countries are improving. And then shortly after that, the Berlin Wall came down and friends of mine in Germany said because the Bering Strait ports are open, because of that thought, then that influenced the Wall coming down, that people around the world saw this opening and then went toward it. It was a really long process and people will decide they want to do a swim and they don’t really realize how much preparation goes into it, especially when you’re trying to do something that’s politically significant, that it’s not just an athletic event that you’re trying to change things.

Mark Divine 24:51
You’re not talking to the tourism bureau. You know what I mean?

Lynne Cox 24:55
You’re doing something much more significant, but the cool thing was that after the Bering Strait, I was able to go and do other cool swims like across the Beagle Channel between Argentina and Chile at a time when relations were really not good. And because of that I was able to get both countries to work together and allow the swim to happen. And then a few years later, when there were discussions happening about oil rights in the middle of the Strait of Magellan, they used the swim as an example of cooperation and detente. So they met on an oil rig, the Chileans and Argentines, and signed a treaty about oil rights in that area. So yeah, it’s like, people can take great ideas and just go further with them. And that’s what you hope.

Mark Divine 25:42
Okay, we’re gonna take a short break here, from the Mark Divine show, to hear a short message from one of our partners.

And now, back to the show.

Mark Divine
Have you considered, I don’t know what form this would take. But I’m just thinking of the next generation who want to do really cool things that are both, you know, speaking your song in the world, as well as doing good for the world, you know, maybe an organization or nonprofit or something where you support young athletes who want to have a similar impact? How cool would that be?

Lynne Cox 26:25
It would be cool, actually, I kind of do that a lot already on Facebook with whoever’s reaching out to me for swim moves, and for open water ideas, or, you know, they’re trying to negotiate something they’ve not done before. And there’s political implications at all. I’ll try to help with that. But right now, I’m still in my world of trying to do more, to write more books and to get out there and speak and inspire others by speaking, you know, from corporations, to individual groups, to schools or universities. So that’s where I’m able to, you know, sing my song in the world and influence people right now.

Mark Divine 26:59
Yeah, that’s cool. You’ve done this all over the place. You’re probably gonna do more of it. And then let’s shift focus. How did you learn about the rescue dogs? And when I read about that, I was so inspired. And I remember just vaguely, you know, like a memory tickling back my brain that I had come across this before. I can’t remember when or where. And most people aren’t aware of the rescue dogs, they’re aware of combat dogs, right? The SEALs use those. But the rescue dogs, it’s a whole different energy to it. I think it’s fascinating. So how did you learn about these and let’s talk about the experience you had with the rescue dogs, or with Al himself.

Lynne Cox 27:39
Actually, the Italian water rescue dogs. There’s a school in northern Italy, where they’re trained Newfoundland’s Labradors, Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds, Lienburgers, and even Italian Spenoni, which are usually gun dogs that go out for hunting. They’re all training to become water, Italian water rescue dogs. And I found out about them from a friend who was a swimmer. She said, Oh, my gosh, you gotta look at this video. So I went online and saw a huge black Newfoundland, leaping out of a red helicopter into a lake in northern Italy, near Milan, or in Milan area, basically. And so I just thought, how do they train a dog to do that?

Mark Divine 28:19
And why why not just a human doing it? I mean, what’s the benefit for a dog to do it?

Lynne Cox 28:24
Because with the dog, a Newfoundland can pull in six people at a time and more with its well trained, a lab, golden retriever, German Shepherd can pull in two to three people at a time. And so we just found out recently, my husband and I have been traveling across the United States for promoting the Tales of Al the water rescue dog. And we found out that there’s groups within the United States that are training their dogs, and also in Italy, and their qualifications are a lot different. But we found out that the dogs are trained to not be afraid of some of the helicopters, they are trained to basically not be afraid of leaping because there’s a progression that happens. And so much of it was so relevant to what I’ve done as an athlete where, you know, you don’t just go off the 10 meter board, or 10 meter platform, you you build up to it, just like when you were training for SEAL or Swiftwater rescue, you basically built up gradually.

So, you know, the dogs were trained to first go off the beach and then off a dock. And then if they have certain skills, they’re allowed to go with the Italian coast guard, onboard the Coast Guard boats with their owners, and leap off the pontoons of the Coast Guard boats, and then off the bow of the boat. And then if they’re connected to the Coast Guard, and they’re doing water rescue, then the helicopters lowered so that the dog is like 10 feet off the water and can leap in followed by the owner who’s also trained as a rescuer, and found out from this young man that in Italy there are a few beaches that have any kind of lifeguards. So the people that are doing this are training all the time through spring and summer. And then they’re also voluntarily patrolling the beaches in Italy, along the coast, but also around the lakes. And they also have taken the school to Croatia, to Switzerland, to Germany and helped other people doing this. So that it’s a great kind of team. It’s camaraderie. The people work with each other, the dogs help each other. But it’s also something of themselves that they’re giving and their dogs and the dogs are eager to do it. That was the other thing is like, are they being forced to do this? Are they happy? Are they being yelled at, what’s going on? And that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to go there.

And I reached out to Donatella Pasquale, who was the vice president of school, and I asked her, could I find out more and she’s like, come to Italy. So she was the one that spoke English very well and helped me observe them. And there was never a time where anyone shouted at any of the dogs or the people. No one was ever reprimanded. No dog was ever reprimanded, it was always positive, supportive. So they didn’t just take a dog. Like I’ve seen this before, with puppies or with kids, I can’t stand it, where an adult thinks it’s okay just to throw a dog or child in the water to get them to swim. And all it does is terrify. Not always, but it does often terrify the dog or the child. So their way of teaching the dog was the way or the puppy or the dog depending on how old it was the same way my parents taught us, my kid, my siblings and our Dalmatian. When I was a kid, the dog supported, the dog learns how to coordinate, I would pass the dog to you, you’d pass the dog back to me, we’d go back and forth. As the dog swims, we give the dog less and less support. And eventually, the puppy or dog is able to swim. So there was always that constant, caring concern, never mean to the dog. So that was the other thing is, what happens if the dog doesn’t want to do what it’s told to do? They don’t make it do it.

Mark Divine 31:55
I’m curious. I was in Egypt a few weeks ago, for school trips, I’m going back to get my PhD in global leadership and change right now from Pepperdine. This international policy trip and we had to go to Egypt. And so one of our visits was to the interior ministry, which for Egypt was a big deal. It’s kind of like their combination of their military and FBI and whatnot, because a lot of their focus is on internal security. And they gave us a dog and pony show quite literally, right, they literally had this one exhibit where they were on horses, and you know, basically spearing targets on the ground, which is difficult to do while they’re galloping. And then they took us to the dogs and dogs were trained to hunt for bombs, you know, so like EOD dogs, and also to police dogs, right, to to get the bad guy kind of thing. And what I noticed was, is the dogs really need to be extrinsically motivated. I mean, after every act that they perform, they were quite excited, but they got a treat. And I’m curious, I’ve heard stories of dogs, pulling their owners out of ice lakes, you know, when they broke through and doing all these things where they got no extrinsic motivation to be helpful to a human being. And so I’m curious with these rescue dogs, and I imagine they do use treats to help them, right. But I’m wondering if they do it for intrinsic motivation versus, you know, like the police dogs or the EOD dogs.

Lynne Cox 33:17
They did it with praise. And that was what I thought was so interesting. And the other thing was

Mark Divine 33:21
They didn’t need a treat after you know,

Lynne Cox 33:24
Their treat was to get the praise, the pets, the acollation. The thing that I thought was so fascinating, as I said, you know, after you do something where you’ve trained really hard, you get to play with toys, do the dogs, do you get through the tennis ball? And have, does Al, does she swim after the tennis ball? And they’re like, no, they don’t get to play with toys like no, never. Why not? They said, We have to be more interesting and exciting than the toy, we want to develop a really strong bond with a dog. So if we play with toys, that’s a distraction. We want the focus on us and we want to be focused on the dog.

It was also interesting, when a dog could only get to a certain skill level, they would attempt the skill two more times, so three times in total. And then if the dog couldn’t get it, then he would have step it down and do something the dog could do. So the dog would succeed at it. And then he would come back to it another time. Or if you were successful with your dog to get it to do a certain thing that you needed to do for the skill for the water rescue dogs, then I would give you my dog and you’d work with my dog. And so there was this dog mentorship, but they also employed the dogs to help each other, which I thought was really fascinating. You know, it’s like, how cool is that?

Mark Divine 34:40
Hey you guys watch me, this is how you do it.

Lynne Cox 34:42
Exactly. And there they go in packs, they follow each other, they’re aware of each other, and they do help each other out and it was really fun to watch and then to see each personality of the different dogs but also the physicality of each dog is different, like the Newfoundlands had these bow-shaped chests, which are just like a boat. And they had webbed feet. And they swim in inverted breaststroke. So they swam, they just move through the water. And then the Golden Retrievers were just at ease, like the little old ladies in the water or little old man just swimming along.

Mark Divine 35:17
That’s fascinating. So why Al,l was that a particular dog that you connected with, it’s a real character, this Al?

Lynne Cox 35:22
She was owned by Donatella. Donatella had had a dog named Alicia, before who was known in Italy, in Japan, all throughout Europe, she’d been on TV, she was a star, and she was known for rescuing so many people. So as Alicia started to fade, Al was brought into the family. And so the thought was that Donatella would get Alicia to help teach Al to become a swimmer, and to become a water rescue dog. But the problem was that Al just didn’t seem to be getting it. And that’s sort of the core of the story where you have what seems to be a delinquent dog. But just like any great coach, Donatella could work with all the dogs and all the owners and figure out what it was they weren’t quite getting, and then help them reach that level that they wanted to get to. She wasn’t able to figure out how to get to Al.

So she just kept trying. And she kept patiently working at it. And then she’d take input from friends. And so the story is really about, how does this amazing person translate that and help the dog reach your potential? So, and I was there for about 10 days, so I was able to see a transformation and the process of what was going on. And that’s really what interests me a lot in life is that process. How does somebody become a great musician? What is, where do they start and go from there, a painter when they’re sketching. My mom was an artist. So I’d watch her paint and start off with a sketch and then watch it evolve into an incredible painting. I love that, I love seeing a person who is afraid of the water, swim. I mean, like that is like one of the greatest gifts you can ever see. Because to me, swimming is like one of the most important life skills and the other one’s reading. But those two things in life, you know, together.

Mark Divine 37:10
That’s cool. That’s interesting. Sometimes we don’t see our own progress or our own skill. My wife took up painting a few years ago. And like, she’s, in my estimation, she’s bringing home masterpieces, you know, of course, maybe I’m a little biased, but she’s like, Oh, I’m not that good. You know, my teacher helped me a lot. I’m like, Are you kidding me? Like, take a look at this. You know, if I had produced this, what would you be saying? And she’s like, Well, yeah, you’re right. Anyways, I don’t know why that popped in my head. I’m thinking, oh, you know why? Because I was thinking, when you’re describing the story of Al like, that would make a great children’s book. Just the story of like, you know, lack of confidence and how you know, mentorship and support, you know, you kind of holding the mirror up to the dog, she’s starting to learn, oh, yeah, maybe I can do this, which is so important for kids, you know.

Lynne Cox 37:59
But it’s also, it’s an interpretation of what people are thinking about, and the way she’s responding are not really what’s happening. So there’s something else, like you looking at this dog as a delinquent. But she is really special. And I think that that’s something that happens with people all the time, you notice, like, oh, that person’s on the spectrum, or, you know, and somebody’s saying that in a negative way. And then suddenly, you realize this person’s extraordinary

Mark Divine 38:28
Right? And then the person just needs someone else to see their extraordinariness because they can’t see themselves.

Lynne Cox 38:33
Right. And so that that person has to understand that and understand something, some signal that occurs where there’s this transformation, where there’s understanding that, okay, you didn’t get how special this person really is.

Mark Divine 38:47
It’s interesting, like, when I’m thinking of teaching right now, it’s like, we select teachers based on technical competence, but the most important skill is to recognize the intelligence of each student. Right? But they should qualify him for that. It’s like, Can you recognize the intelligence and the genius in your students or not? If you can’t, then…

Lynne Cox 39:05
Because it’s not just about parroting information, it’s about taking that information and thinking about it and coming back with something more.

Mark Divine 39:11
Right. We got to wrap this thing up here, unfortunately, because it’s been so much fun, but um, you’re on this book tour, Tales of Al is out. People can find it anywhere, you know, if someone wanted to book you for, to make a stop or to come visit their town. Is that possible? Or, you know, if a bookstore owner wanted to contact you, like, what do we do?

Lynne Cox 39:32
Well, you can go to www.lynnecox.com. And you can reach us that way. And then I can put whoever in touch with my publicist. If it’s speaking then that’s the same thing. If you want to have me come speak. The tour itself is pretty much set. And you can go online there and see what the tour is. So now, I did a West Coast tour. I’m on the East Coast tour, which is second stage. And then I go to the Midwest, which includes Chicago, St. Paul., St. Louis and Kansas City. And then from there I go to Lake Champlain, and to Seattle, and then back down to Southern California and San Diego area. And then there’ll be other stuff probably later.

Mark Divine 40:16
Then your next book, turtles, you’re gonna get on that when you’re done with this tour.

Lynne Cox 40:20
Right, so right now, it’s just really out there talking about Tales of Al the water rescue dog, and also about Italy and the cuisine of Italy, because a lot of the stories emerged during this wonderful meal after spending time in training. You know, when you’re an athlete, you get together and you debrief and you talk about what worked and what didn’t work over a glass of wine and some food.

Mark Divine 40:44
Oh, I love it. Sandy, and I love Italy. We love Tuscany. And I was just talking to Jeff this morning about buying houses in Italy for a buck, right. And there’s this one of the revitalization initiatives, right is to sell some of these old, rundown properties to anybody who wants to buy it for like dirt cheap, as long as they improve it and hopefully move there and contribute to the economy. And I was like, Well, that would be kind of fun, actually.

Lynne Cox 41:08
Yeah, yeah. There’s so many things you can do in your life.

Mark Divine 41:11
Oh, my God, you’re right. Yeah. So much to do, such little time. Lynne, it’s been a true pleasure. Thanks so much for giving us your time today.

Lynne Cox 41:20
Likewise, Mark, thanks so much for including me in your interviews and all that, it’s been really cool.

Mark Divine 41:28
That was one of the more interesting interviews I’ve done in a long time. Lynne Cox, who has swum some of the most dangerous and intriguing bodies of water, she swam the Bering Strait, which took her 11 years to coordinate during the height of the Cold War and was cited by Gorbachev as helping to see that there was a very short distance between these countries, you know, only two miles really in the Bering Strait and that the people weren’t so different, after all. So fascinating, also swam in the highest lake in the world. Lake Titicaca in South America where she got bitten along the way by who knows what, hope it wasn’t a piranha. But talk about scary. She has fended off shark attacks swimming around the horn of Africa, swam in Antarctica she wrote a book about that, fascinating, fascinating woman. Her book, Tales of Al, talks about where she spent time with the rescue dogs in Italy, is fascinating.

Show Notes are up at markdivine.com. You can find the video of the episode at the YouTube channel, Mark divine.com/youtube. And if you want to propose a guest or have questions for me, you can reach me at Twitter at Mark Divine and on Facebook and Instagram at real Mark Divine and of course, my LinkedIn channel.

If you’re not on my newsletter distribution list, consider subscribing at Mark divine.com. My Divine Inspiration newsletter heads out every Tuesday, where I profile the podcast guest of the week, my blog and other interesting things that I’m exploring, learning, reading and doing.

Shout out to my amazing team, Geoff Haskell, Jason Sanderson, Jeff Torres, and Melinda Hershey, who bring you this podcast every week with these incredible guests like Lynne. Reviewing and rating the show is very helpful. So if you haven’t done that, please consider doing that my goal is 5000 5 star reviews this year, we’ve got over 1000. And it’s very helpful for credibility and for other people to find it, because it shows up in Apple or Amazon search with the more ratings you have.

As you know, the world is changing fast. We’re at the cusp of radical changes in our culture and our global economy in pretty much everything, even the understanding of what it means to be human. It’s imperative that we all take control of training ourselves so that we aren’t swept away by technology, but we can partner with it. And that we can become more inclusive, world centric, and have more caring, compassion and inclusion as leaders. And so that work starts within, that is my mission. And I appreciate you being part of that journey and doing the work yourself. So hoo-yah, until next time, get in the water and read a great book. Hoo-yah. Divine out.

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