This Day In History: August 7

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On August 7, 1987, Lynne Cox braves the freezing waters of the Bering Strait to make the first recorded swim from the United States to the Soviet Union.

Lynne Cox’s swimming career began in her native New Hampshire when she was just nine years old. Not long after that, her parents moved the family to California so that Lynne and her siblings could live near the ocean and have access to better swim coaching. In 1971, under the direction of Coach Don Gambril, Cox joined her swim club in a swim of the 31-mile Catalina Channel off the coast of Southern California. Cox proved to be a natural at open-water swimming, and at the age of 15 she swam the notoriously difficult English Channel in just nine hours and 57 minutes, breaking the world record for both men and women. Two years later, Cox swam the Channel again, and again she broke the record, with a time of nine hours and 36 minutes.

By 1987, when Cox decided to try her luck at swimming the Bering Strait, the Cold War was just beginning to thaw, and under the leadership of reformer Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union opened their border to Cox. Her rigorous training regiment included regularly swimming in water at between 38 and 42 degrees Fahrenheit. Cox—who rarely swam in a wetsuit regardless of water temperature–donned just a swimsuit as she set out from the shores of Little Diomede, Alaska, about 350 miles north of Anchorage, in water just above freezing. With a team of physiologists monitoring her swim, Cox stayed in the water for 2 hours and 16 minutes, crossing the international dateline and continuing all the way to Big Diomede on the coast of the Soviet Union, 2.7 miles up the Bering Strait. Her swim is considered one of the most incredible cold water swims in history.

The next year, while signing the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces treaty with President Ronald Reagan at the White House, Gorbachev referred to Cox’s impressive achievement: “Last summer it took one brave American by the name of Lynne Cox just two hours to swim from one of our countries to the other. We saw on television how sincere and friendly the meeting was between our people and the Americans when she stepped onto the Soviet shore. She proved by her courage how close to each other our peoples live.”