Swim­ming for rap­proche­ment

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY LYNNE COX Lynne Cox is a long-dis­tance swim­mer and writer. Her most re­cent book is “Swim­ming in the Sink.”

Thirty years ago this Mon­day, I swam from the United States to the Soviet Union. The wa­ter was 38 de­grees Fahren­heit, and I was wear­ing just a swim­suit, bathing cap and gog­gles. Few peo­ple be­lieved any­one could sur­vive for more than two hours in wa­ter that cold. The harder part was get­ting the Sovi­ets to al­low the swim at all. But my jour­ney was the cul­mi­na­tion of an 11-year ef­fort to use sport to open the bor­der be­tween the United States and the Soviet Union. I had to try. I wanted to make a dif­fer­ence.

Grow­ing up dur­ing the Cold War, I was afraid that the ten­sion and mis­un­der­stand­ing be­tween the peo­ple of the United States and the Soviet Union would cause our mu­tual self-de­struc­tion. The small­est mis­step be­tween the su­per­pow­ers could es­ca­late into a world war.

As a teenager, I swam the Catalina Chan­nel in Cal­i­for­nia and the English Chan­nel, among other cross­ings. When my fa­ther sug­gested a Ber­ing Strait swim around that time, it seemed im­pos­si­ble. But in time I re­al­ized that if I did suc­ceed, it might help change the way Sovi­ets and Amer­i­cans viewed each other. Just two-and-a-half miles sep­a­rated Amer­ica’s Lit­tle Diomede Is­land in Alaska and the Soviet Union’s Big Diomede in the strait. I could show both sides how close we truly were.

It was dif­fi­cult to ob­tain the sup­port I needed. There were many ques­tions. How could an ath­letic achieve­ment open a bor­der or make con­nec­tions be­tween peo­ple? I con­tacted the State Depart­ment, politi­cians and sci­en­tists. Most thought I would never suc­ceed. I wrote a suc­ces­sion of Soviet pre­miers — Leonid Brezh­nev, then Yuri An­dropov, then Kon­stantin Ch­er­nenko — but got no re­sponse. But I per­sisted and fi­nally, two days be­fore I was plan­ning to swim, Pres­i­dent Mikhail Gor­bachev gave his per­mis­sion.

I jumped into the icy wa­ter off Lit­tle Diomede on Aug. 7, 1987. I was 30 years old, and I was ex­cited. But I was also afraid. Even in train­ing, I’d never swum in wa­ter so cold. There was a good chance I would go into hy­pother­mia and fail to com­plete the cross­ing. I might even die. I had doc­tors in a sup­port boat watch­ing over me, but I was still go­ing far beyond any­thing I had ever done be­fore.

With the nav­i­ga­tional sup­port of Alaska Na­tives from Lit­tle Diomede Is­land in umiak boats, along with my crew and the me­dia, I swam on, de­ter­mined to suc­ceed. My hands turned gray in the ice-cold wa­ter, and my arms and legs felt like boards. As we neared the bor­der, we kept hop­ing to see the Soviet skiff set to meet us, but the fog was too thick. Then, when I was just 100 me­ters from Big Diomede, the Soviet boat ap­peared out of the mist, and the con­nec­tion was made. It guided us to shore. It was Aug. 8 when I stepped out of the wa­ter — I had crossed both the bor­der and the International Date Line. It was also the be­gin­ning of a new era.

I was wel­comed by the gov­er­nor of Siberia, the head of the KGB for Siberia, Soviet Olympic ath­letes and 50 VIPs from all over the Soviet Union. Not long af­ter, Pres­i­dents Ron­ald Rea­gan and Gor­bachev toasted the swim at the sign­ing of the in­ter­me­di­ate-range mis­sile treaty. Gor­bachev said I “showed how close to each other our peo­ples live.”

The world changed af­ter that. The two Diomede Is­land com­mu­ni­ties, sep­a­rated for al­most a half-cen­tury, were re­con­nected. Flights be­gan be­tween Alaska and Siberia. Ex­changes and eco­nomic open­ings gained mo­men­tum, and the rip­ples reached as far as Eastern Europe. The swim in­spired oth­ers to take on chal­lenges they never thought pos­si­ble. It was a joy­ful time, filled with hope, pos­si­bil­ity and trust.

But now the sense of rap­proche­ment, op­ti­mism and trust nur­tured by Rea­gan and Gor­bachev have evap­o­rated. In their place we have con­fronta­tion and reprisals. Poor re­la­tions, or­der­ing diplo­mats to leave and ex­chang­ing threats all serve to cre­ate higher walls, and fos­ter dis­trust and de­ceit.

Once again, peo­ple in both coun­tries need to find ways to col­lab­o­rate — through sports, art, music and lit­er­a­ture. We need to take the high road, and by do­ing so we can in­spire to­day’s politi­cians to find a new kind of rap­proche­ment. We can show that con­nec­tions among peo­ples of na­tions can over­come the of­ten-per­sonal ri­val­ries of their po­lit­i­cal lead­ers.

Thirty years ago, I set out to send a mes­sage by div­ing for­ward into the un­known: Ev­ery­thing is con­nected. What is im­pos­si­ble can be­come pos­si­ble. We just need to take the risk of reach­ing out.

Just two-and-a-half miles sep­a­rated Amer­ica’s Lit­tle Diomede Is­land in Alaska and the Soviet Union’s Big Diomede in the Ber­ing Strait.

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