“A true hero goes far beyond just being a great athlete”

Sport hasn’t just changed my life. It’s created my life. It’s given me a chance from a very young age to explore the far reaches of the world and the oceans, and to meet fellow athletes and other extraordinary people who are determined to follow their dreams and do the impossible.

When I opened a map of the world, I would study the blue spaces between and around the continents, and wondered what it would be like to attempt swims that had never been imagined. What would it be

like to swim across waters where the seas were so rough that they sank massive ships? Every time I would achieve a goal and conquer a swim, I’d go back to the world maps and set my next challenge. Scientists have been fascinated with my ability to endure these extreme temperatures without going into shock. While most people experience a decrease in core temperature when they swim in cold water, leading to hypothermia, I was able to increase my core temperature. Every one of my swims was a journey of discovery for all of us, to figure out how and why my physiology is different.

But these experiences aren’t just about testing my own limits. I measure the success of my swims by their ability to connect people.

In 1987, I swam from the United States to the Soviet Union. I wanted to see if that one swim could have a ripple effect in society – could it open borders? Could my kicks, strokes and breathes be the catalyst to connect people? My hope was that the swim would help bridge the political and cultural distance between the two nations and show both sides how truly close they were. To cross the International Date Line and passage through time was extraordinary. It was as symbolic as it was real. Not long after, President Ronald Reagan and leader of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev toasted the swim at the signing of the Intermediate Range Missile Treaty.

Most people are terrified of open water, but it’s where I feel most at home. It’s unpredictable. Each day in the ocean is different. While you can train, map out your routes and take every precaution to ensure you’re safe, the waters have the ability to constantly surprise you. When I was seventeen, I was training off the coast of Seal Beach, California. I was about to wrap up my workout when I realised I was being followed by a baby whale. A fisherman shouted at me from shore, saying I shouldn’t come in because the whale, who I named Grayson, would try follow me. I spent hours swimming with him in surrounding areas, searching for his mother. And we found her. This experience really woke something up inside of me. I was able to truly connect with a mysterious creature of the sea and have an impact on his life. Realising I could do something like that made me understand that nothing is impossible. When things look big, if you take it in small strokes, you can really achieve anything you want.

I believe that to be a true hero, you have to go beyond just being a great athlete. I work hard to help protect the oceans and all living things in it. My swims make me realise just how important it is to preserve them. I am an advocate for clean oceans, rivers and lakes and am pursuing ways to preserve coral reefs, sustain reef life and help restore and maintain the natural barrier to storm surge and high surf.

To me, Rise Up means to get out of bed, go swimming and do what you dream. I want to share my stories and inspire people to do the things that are seemingly impossible. I have written six books, which include stories of many of my cold-water swims, explain my methods for achieving great goals and how sport can help heal the mind. Sport has taught me resilience. It has taught me how valuable it is to have a great support team. It has taught me that by training not only your body but your mind, your potential is boundless. But above all, it has taught me to live a purposeful life.

Lynne Cox / Long-distance Ice Swimmer

Citizens of Sport don’t stand by, they Rise Up.

Question: How has sport helped you live a more purposeful life?