On August 7, 1987, Lynne Cox became the first person to swim from the United States to the Soviet Union. Her two hour and five-minute swim across the frigid Bering Strait was considered an important moment in the thawing of tensions between the long-time rival Cold War nations. A testament to its significance, the following year at the historic signing of the INF Missile Treaty at the White House, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev gave Lynne Cox a shout-out: “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.”
Before her history-making swim from Alaska to the Soviet Union, Cox was already a veteran endurance swimmer. At the age of 14, she swam the 31-mile Catalina Channel off the coast of southern California. In 1975, she became the first woman to swim the 14-mile Cook Straits in New Zealand, in an impressive time of just under 12 hours. When the Soviet Union agreed to open their border to Cox for her swim, she underwent a rigorous training routine that included regularly swimming in near-freezing cold water to prepare for the famously cold waters of the Bering Strait.
As she prepared to embark on her 2.7-mile swim across the Bering Strait, Cox was warned that the water temperature was dangerously low at around 44°F (5°C). Despite the icy conditions, the 30-year-old long-distance swimmer still opted to leave her wetsuit at home and only wear a bathing suit. Experts believe that a combination of her training and pure determination that, allowed Cox to safely complete the unprecedented swim. Along the swim, she was escorted by a Soviet vessel and two Eskimo walrus-skin boats carrying researchers and reporters to chronicle her exciting trip.
On August 7, Cox departed from Little Diomede, Ala. and arrived at the Soviet island of Big Diomede at 1 pm, greeted by 30 Soviet journalists, sports officials and Siberian natives. After she warmed up in a heated tent, the Soviets celebrated Cox’s exciting feat with a beach-side picnic. At a time when the United States and the Soviet Union were still rival nations, it was particularly remarkable to watch an American be celebrated on enemy soil. Of the experience, Cox shared, “It’s the best, it’s more than I ever imagined – to have them open their door and let us land on their shore.” The Cold War ended two years later on December 3, 1989.