I am a wimp. I didn’t always think so. But the other night after attending a lecture on why athletics are an integral part of the academic experience I learned just how big a baby I am. Turns out: huge. Let me explain.
While overlooking the field at AT&T Park, several dozen Tufts alumni gathered to hear university officials discuss the importance of having a solid athletic program. The guest speaker was a woman named Lynne Cox – an American open water swimmer who takes competition to the ultimate extreme.
If you haven’t heard of Cox, let me list a few of her accomplishments. In 2002, she was the first person to swim a mile in the frigid waters off Antarctica. She did it while wearing only a Speedo bathing suit. Cox has held the world record for swimming the English Channel twice. Perhaps most notably, during the height of the Cold War she swam the Bering Strait between the Diomede Islands in an effort to ease tensions between the USSR and the U.S. And it worked. Both Gorbachev and Reagan credited her swim as the event leading to the thaw.
As I listened to Cox recap her life story, I was awestruck by the fact that she performed most of these feats at night – swimming alone in the open seas, guided only by a dude on a surfboard with a lantern and a rescue team in a small dingy beside her. She was undeterred by sharks, sea snakes or water temperatures below 32 degrees. There was no water too cold, no swim too far. Cox simply put her head down and worked with scientists to figure out a way to do it without killing herself. And at 50, she is still swimming, still pushing the threshold of what the human body is capable of breaching.
Sitting at the ballpark, I flashed back to my college days where my teammates and I had a training date with the indoor pool every Monday night. Without fail, I was the last person in the water at all times. It took a lot of coercion and threats to my life before I would bring myself to hop into the pool where the temperature was at least 80. To this day, I do not swim in the ocean out of fear of sharks. If I dare enter the water I make sure there are several other people farther out than me to serve as bait. I am a wimp yes, an idiot no.
Cox spoke about how she achieved results: setting her sights on a goal and slowly carving the path to get her there. Hard work was a given, as was the ability to withstand extreme pain. And I am adding another: a little streak of crazy.
But Cox is mortal. She didn’t always accomplish what she set out to do. However, she learned from each swim, analyzing what went wrong and how she could better prepare for changes in the tides and changes in her health. Her talk prompted me to think about my own goals. I wish I could say I aspire to swim the English Channel and set a few world records in the process. I wish I could say my goals involve brokering a peace deal between nations. But mine are a little less lofty. I would like to run another, faster marathon. I aim to get into law school. I aspire to develop the recipe for the perfect barbecue sauce.
In comparison, my goals seem remarkably unremarkable. But they are mine. And they require focus and training too. When I think about how Cox spent more than a decade of writing to officials in the USSR just to be allowed to enter Soviet waters back in 1987, I realize my goals are much easier than planning a swim between the Diomede Islands. I just need to put my head down and reach.