If one didn’t know the story of Diana Nyad, that image alone would evoke admiration. A 64 year-old woman is not who we generally think of when considering athletic heroes. And yet, there she was, declaring victory against the forces that had worked against her since that first attempt, back when Jimmy Carter was still president and Laverne & Shirley was the #1 show on TV.
Strong Westerly winds, however, threw her off course in 1978, and Nyad was forced to end the swim after covering 76 of the trip’s miles. Having already won a record for the fastest swim around the island of Manhattan, her legacy was intact despite not reaching her goal.
She became an author – first of a memoir, “Other Shores,” and later of biographies and content for major publications – and, not surprisingly, a motivational speaker. She was a contributor and commentator on public radio. And then, on a milestone birthday, having turned 60 and recently lost her mother, she did what so many of us do;pondered her list of things not yet accomplished.
“I said, ‘Uh-uh, I am not going into that good night. I am going to fire up and live this thing as large as I can live it until I can’t live it that large anymore.'”
And so she started training again, first in the Bahamas and then from the planned point of her ultimate finish line, Key West. Training began in July 2010. Bad weather cancelled the scheduled August try, so the swim was moved to July 2011.
It was, as Nyad says herself, most certainly a team effort, including a lighted support boat to keep her on course. It was not enough, however to keep away the strong currents.
Just two months later she would go again, and make it 41 hours (67 nautical miles) before the current would once again thwart her success. This time, it was aided by creatures of the sea – it is difficult to forget the images of Nyad with jellyfish and Portuguese man-o-ward stings that left her skin unbearably red and puffy, as if she’d been to a sea war and perhaps not won.
She was not deterred. The following August she renewed her quest, this time covering a greater distance but still falling short. And yet, stopping was still not an option. In a speech at the University of Texas, Nyad explained the attitude that prevailed in 2013, when she and her group took to the water once more::
“Our team said, on the Havana shore before this last attempt, that we would Find A Way. That’s what a champion athlete does. No matter the obstacles, she finds a way to the other side.”
A specially designed suit and mask to protect from stings were her uniform this go-round. Once in the water, they could not shield her from the hallucinations (including visions of the Yellow Brick Road and the Seven Dwarfs), ingested water (and subsequent vomiting), and exhaustion. But with best friend Bonnie Stoll to give her both sustenance and encouragement, she swam on.
On the second night, getting more delirious, Nyad saw what she thought was the morning sun, way in the distance. But it was not the sun – it was, in fact, the lights of Key West. Still hours away, she knew then that success was inevitable.
She came ashore on September 3, looking disoriented (she was), and exhausted. And while her appearance was disconcerting, there was another state of being simply waiting to take its proper place.
She was victorious. She had taken on the seemingly impossible odds, at an age where such dreams can only be pipes ones, and had turned the odds upside down.
The inspiration here is no less profound for its obviousness. For all of the qualities it takes to achieve such greatness – dedication, self-confidence, purpose – the one that strikes me most is persistence.
It is rather easy to set goals, attempt them, and move on if they turn out to be more ambitious than we first suspect. Perhaps we even try a second time to be able to tell the world we are not quitters.
But to commit ourselves to the thing – to go after it again and again – takes a special kind of focus and heart that brings us to another level of existence. Fighting the inevitable doubts requires, paradoxically, both patience with our human-ness and impatience with the belief that it limits us.
How many times have each of us stopped because the struggle felt too long, or too hard? How often do we allow our fears or the fears of others to keep us from staying on a noble path?
How many times might we have relinquished a dream without looking up to see that the lights of Key West were calling us forward?
Each of us must set our own targets, find our own North Star. No matter the path, we must all do that one thing that people like Diana Nyad have been teaching us to do since we started taking notice.