Lessons from Diana: The importance of the attempt

After nearly 30 hours in the water, Diana Nyad pulled herself onto one of her support boats. The swim was over. Ocean swells, shoulder pain and finally vomiting were all contributing factors forcing the 61-year old to abandon her attempt to swim 103 miles from Cuba to Florida. She had failed in this particular venture for the second time in her life.

To be honest, I don’t know what impresses and inspires me most about Nyad. Here are my top three:

  • Endurance open water swimming. Just say the words “open water swimming” to me and I’m impressed. While I’ve grown comfortable in the water and have developed some confidence, swimming is still a daunting task to me. Anytime I survive an open water swim, whether it’s a 750-meter sprint triathlon, a 2.4-mile Iron Distance or 20 minutes of practice, I am secretly proud of myself. To swim for nearly 30 hours in the ocean and endure swells and jellyfish stings? That’s bad ass.
  • Returning to the scene of failure. Nyad attempted this same swim in 1978 when she was 29 years old. While she went on to set a world record for open water distance the next year, her failed Cuba to Florida swim gnawed at her. She had stopped swimming for 31 years. She was engaged in other life pursuits. Yet something called her back to the water, back to this original 103-mile swim. When something goes wrong, I tend to feel shame and embarrassment. Would I be able to return to a failed attempt and try again? That’s gutsy and confident.
  • Living passionately. Diana Nyad will be 62 years old on Aug. 22. That didn’t stop her from dreaming big. Age was not an excuse. Fiances were not an excuse. She found something she wanted to do. She surrounded herself with people who believed in her, supported her and wanted to dream big, too. She embraced a seemingly ridiculous challenge and lived it. There was no going through the motions. That’s authenticity.

Should you wish to catch up on the nitty gritty of Diana’s swim attempt, there is excellent coverage on the major news networks, including CNN while Steven Munatones, an observer of the swim, offered his eye witness account on Daily News of Open Water Swimming.

But more than just the play-by-play of the swim and the answers to the “what happened?” questions is the meaning behind the swim. Endurance feats are almost always about more than the actual physical activity. There’s something larger. And for Nyad, it was about fully engaging in life, about kicking fear to the curb, about utilizing the wisdom of her years. In a post on her blog, Diana’s crew discusses lessons of the swim:

This was always about the attempt, this was always about reach…about the courage to risk wanting anything passionately again—or maybe even for the first time.

Success is incredibly accessible if you define it conveniently, as those second-rate compromises we settle for every day or as choosing safety over challenging yourself.

Get up, wake up, you can do whatever you set your mind to, or at least you can try.

By all accounts, Nyad is disappointed with her abandoned swim. In one way, after all, it is a defeat, a failure to reach the shore. But that is only one narrow definition of success and failure. The real failure is letting life pass you by. Maybe for you it’s not about a crazy endurance event. Maybe for you it’s about walking a 5K or practicing yoga daily. Maybe it’s about embracing your passion for cooking or reading or astronomy or the cello. Your passion is calling to you. Life is asking you to take part. Diana reminded us that regardless of what others say about our dreams, despite conventional wisdom about things like age and gender and societal “norms” about the appropriateness of activities, happiness comes from following your heart. The outcome doesn’t matter nearly as much as the attempt.

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