The return of Diana Nyad: Inspiration in the water

The rolling wave lifted my body. It did so gently, but I responded with panic, turning my head to breathe too early and gaining a mouthful of water. I stopped and looked ahead. Waves were rolling towards me, sometimes making it difficult to sight the big, bright, orange buoy. But I gathered myself, put my face back in the water, and resumed swimming. A rolling wave came again and this time I smiled at the sensation when it gently lifted and lowered my body. “Don’t fight the water,” I thought. “Play with it.”

Not quite a marathon swim, but feeling good after my 1.2 miles in Geneva, NY

The 1.2-mile swim in Seneca Lake proved to be the easiest part of the day for me during the Musselman 70.3 triathlon this past weekend. The heat zapped me midway through the bike and created a run which was all about survival, not about, well, actual running. But the swim, the swim was actually fun. After I mentally calmed down from the tossing of the waves and regrouped after a few encounters with rapidly thrashing arms and legs and feet of fellow triathletes, it was pretty easy. Just put my face in the water,  reach, glide, and kick. I felt comfortable and confident.

In some ways, this was all wrong. After all, I dread the swim, remember? The swim is my least favorite part of the triathlon. I start to hyperventilate at the mere sight of large orange buoys, even if I happen to be a fully-clothed spectator that day. And then it occurred to me — it’s not that I don’t like swimming. I actually have found that I love swimming. It’s that the whole notion of trying to swim fast is problematic for me. I enjoy the swim. I don’t enjoy racing the swim.

As I was pondering my own open water swimming travails, I found a piece of news which had somehow previously escaped my attention — Diana Nyad is preparing to swim from Cuba to Florida. In fact, any day now she could be in the water, making the 103-mile journey from Havana to Key West. Nyad tried this same swim before, back in 1978 when she was 28. Now, she’s 61, nearly 62, and jumped back into the project of the marathon swim through shark-infested waters.


In recent interviews, she describe the angst  she felt when she turned 60 and decided she needed to do something, to rekindle that sense of commitment not just to a project but to living a full life. That swim from Cuba to Florida? Well, that was some unfinished business and Nyad needed a challenge. A big challenge. Her heart and head said she needed to chase her dream again:


While the focus most certainly is on the endurance act of swimming, the project involves so much more than training. It involves logistics, people and technology including things not available during her 1978 attempt, like GPS, navigation software and shark shields. It’s costly and while Nyad is raising money to help with the financial burden of the swim, she’s apparently not too concerned. “If I wind up $150,000 in debt, I won’t lose sleep over it,” she told the New York Times. There’s something inspirational in that, something meaningful in following your heart’s desire regardless of conventional concerns about things like money or age.

Since my foray into triathlon a few years ago (which included learning how to swim in my 30s), I have been awed by marathon swimmers, particularly women who have done marathon swims: from Canadian teenager Natalie Lambert’s Swim the Difference marathons in Lake Ontario to my historical obsession with English Channel swimmer Gertrude Ederle to, yes, reading and watching videos about Nyad’s 1978 Cuba swim. These women embrace a huge project, a seemingly impossible task, and make it a reality. They patiently answer questions about their age — wether they be considered too young or too old for such demanding conditions — and immerse themselves not just in their quest, but in their own lives.

The marathon swim contains so many factors out of an athlete’s control that success defined as completing the swim has extremely low odds of occurring. But if the outcome itself was all that mattered, I suspect these women would not be so driven. They all live in the moment, because they never quite know when the conditions will be right to make their crossing attempt or if the conditions will change too drastically during the swim forcing them to abandon the attempt. Instead, they must embrace the journey, because the destination is hardly a given. There’s deep wisdom in that, wisdom I take into my day to day life, both in and out of my own athletic realm.

In a story on ABC World News, Nyad gave her inspirational worlds, her takeaway message:

Live your life big. Burn the candle large. …. When I go to sleep at night, I think. ‘How much more could I have put into this day?’ Nothing. That’s the way I want to live.

She’s got me fired up to live my life big today. How will I answer that question when I fall asleep tonight? What will I put into today? And what, for me, will matter most?

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