Twice inducted into the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame and the International Swimming Hall of Fame, Lynne Cox is considered a living legend among swimming connoisseurs. A natural storyteller, Cox sat down with the Seattle Times to talk about Seattle’s love of dogs, the vibrant open water swimming community here, King County’s search and rescue dog team, southern resident killer whales, and the connection between these topics for her new book Tales of Al: The Water Rescue Dog. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Her seventh book is the story of an irresistible Newfoundland puppy who dares to face the challenges of the renowned Scuola Italiana Cani da Salvataggio (Italian School of Water Rescue Dogs). Locally, we enjoy a robust safety net in our outdoor life in western Washington thanks to the notable King County Search & Rescue, which includes the King County Search Dogs. These dedicated dog/owner/handler duo teams train as a unit twice a week and are on call 24 hours a day.
Tales of Al: The Water Rescue Dog is a book about that wonderful dedication, and the Italian rescue dogs and their trainers show similar courage, going into places that are unsafe and putting themselves at risk to help others. Volunteering to train and improve the community in this way shows a tremendous generosity from these special dogs and their people that I admire so much.
Speaking of admiration, her intrepid swimmers around the world, described in her first book, Swimming to Antarctica, have inspired more than a generation of swimmers around the world. What was it like swimming in Italy?
Swimming in Italy was fabulous and unlike anything I’ve ever done because we swam in warm water. But swimming is not just swimming. You’re always hungry after a long swim, and there’s this tradition of ending a swim with a shared snack or hot liquid and socializing. In Italy the swimming was great but the food was also a celebration which allowed me to explore the relationship between a community of people who love dogs, training and really good food. These were dishes from northern Italy, from farm to table, cooked long and slow and with love.
And the conversation?
Long, wonderful conversations over dinner, chatting about dogs and training techniques and courage and swimming, a whole new perspective on a different part of the culture in Italy.
In terms of courage, in the book you recount how you taught a child to swim, with a result that ties into the central themes of Tales of Al: The Water Rescue Dog.
Over the years I have worked with children who have had terrifying experiences in the water. In one case I was working with a boy named Jimmy who had a horrible experience with an instructor throwing him in the water on the first day. It didn’t have the desired effect. When I met Jimmy for our first lesson, we just put our feet in the water instead. Next I set about explaining what was most important to Jimmy and I learned that Jimmy loved his chocolate labs. So I figured out how to use dogs in our swimming lessons. And the Labs became stars. You really made him swim.
In Tales of Al: The Water Rescue Dog, the reader meets your first childhood dog, the adorable swimming Dalmatian named Beth, and later, as an adult, your well-behaved puppy boy named Cody – who will charm your life with his yellow Lab personality Has . How can the influence of a good dog on a human life be described?
Dogs truly have a place in the human heart, just like our loved ones. Anyone who has ever loved a special dog will understand how I never got over losing Cody. I still think about him.
Dogs definitely enrich our lives, and yes, Seattle as a city has been described as dog-obsessed. When COVID-19 first emerged, it was anecdotally interesting how people instinctively reached out to dogs to adopt to get them through the scary and uncertain times.
Yes, for many people, they weathered the COVID-19 lockdown with a healthy plan: find a dog, find a friend, and find an outdoor sport to do together. I think dogs and walking dogs have made a huge difference in so many people’s lives during this time.
Dogs aside, you are an open water swimmer comfortable sharing the water with wildlife. This part of the Pacific Northwest is known for its connection to the health of the region’s salmon population and the welfare of our southern resident killer whales. As a daily ocean swimmer, you can understand our community’s connection to the Salish Sea.
Yes, I remember reading the 2018 story where the southern mother orca lost her baby and then swam back and forth with her dead calf for 17 days. I remember reading that and it was heartbreaking. And it still is today. The swimming pools I’ve done have been opportunities to write about wildlife and the health of our water bodies. You know, and that’s what draws me out there. I mean, three days ago I was swimming in Long Beach and two dolphins, a mother and the baby, just swam past me about 10 feet away. And when you see something like that, it just takes your breath away. You just stop and watch because you’re just so awed to see something so beautiful and feel so connected to the water. And then you think admiringly [Cox laughs] I wish I could swim just a little bit like that.
Or even swim a little like Al?
Yes, I learned that Newfoundlands can pull up to six people at a time! I think one of the goals of my writing was to talk about how – as athletes, as people who love the sea and the water of lakes and rivers – we need to be aware of what’s going on in our environment. This effort, as well as the beautiful ritual of swimming there, challenges us to be as brave as the mighty rescue dogs of Italy.