At 1:55 pm EDT on September 2, 2013, Diana Nyad, age 64, reached the shore of Key West Florida 53 hours after plunging into the Bay in Havana, Cuba. Thirty-three years after her first attempt, this was her fifth effort to complete the Havana to Key West swim, and upon completion she became the first person to swim the 110 mile distance without a shark cage. Contrary to the claims of many “experts” who insisted that such a swim was not possible, Nyad refused to be dissuaded, despite the fact that she had nearly lost her life on a previous attempt in which poisonous jellyfish had bitten her extensively throughout her body.
Her amazing book Find a Way: The Inspiring Story of One Woman’s Pursuit of a Lifelong Dream, describes not only very detailed aspects of this experience, but provides some context that addresses the question of why Diana was so determined to accomplish so challenging a feat, and undergo the rigors inherent in the training, preparation, and experience of such an ordeal.
Since the publication of Find a Way, on October 20, 2015, many thousands of readers have been inspired and deeply moved by Diana’s determination, courage, and commitment that shine brilliantly throughout the book, including Hillary Clinton who stated that the book would stay with her through the general election and that “When you’re facing big challenges in your life, you can think about Diana Nyad getting attacked by the lethal sting of box jellyfishes, and nearly anything else seems doable by comparison.”
After her historic swim, when asked what made it possible for her to complete her historic swim, Nyad responded with three principles that she embodied in her swim and lives by in her life:
(1) Never, ever give up.
(2) You’re never too old to chase your dreams.
(3) It looks like a solitary sport but it’s a team.
While it’s natural to conceptualize Diana’s swim as a one-woman event, principle three affirms her recognition that as important as her own intention was, an essential aspect of the process, that ultra-distance swimming is indeed a team sport and that without her support team, which was made up of about 25 people, including navigators, jellyfish specialists, managers, boat crew, weather routers, medical personnel and shark experts, without them, she never could have accomplished what she did. The cost of the swim was approximately $500,000.
Find a Way offers some insight into what drove Diana to be so relentless in her intentionality and so competitive in her life. Sexually molested and traumatized by her stepfather as a child, and later by her swim coach during her teen years, Diana suffered in silence and shame until midlife when she began to come to terms with her past and became determined to prove to herself that she was something other than an object of sex. Looking back from the vantage point of post-midlife, she reflects that she spent much of her twenties, thirties, and forties “in a determined rage to validate that I was more than a female sex crime victim.”
Diana gained fame by swimming around Manhattan at age 30. Following that accomplishment, she didn’t swim long distances for the next 30 years and followed other pursuits, including book-writing (she has authored four), writing for the New York Times, National Public Radio’s, All Things Considered, and Newsweek. She is also the co-founder of the company Bravabody that provides on-line exercise advice to women over 40.
In 2012 she was the subject of a short documentary “Diana” on the digital channel, and she has been the “Business of Sport” commentator for American Public Media’s public radio program Marketplace business news. She has also been a regular contributor to the CBS News television show Sunday Morning. In 2014, Diana was inducted into Gay and Lesbian Sports Hall of Fame.
At age sixty, Diana began to train again. She was driven to spend punishing amounts of time in cold lakes, rivers, and oceans. In her own words, “When you hear the stories of most leaders and people who have attained high levels of success over hellish circumstances, they speak of natural talents, and experience and good fortune, and timing, and mentors. But they collectively agree that critical denominator to any individual succeeding is perseverance.”
The game of relationships, like long-distance swimming, is also a team sport. There are inevitably unforeseen obstacles, challenges and difficulties that even experienced players encounter, as well as times which require the assistance of specialists who know the territory and can assist you to navigate through the obstacles that arise unexpectedly. Your team can consist of friends who are ahead of you on the path, supportive family members who can help you to get perspective when intense emotions and unmet needs become difficult to manage, and professionals, when your best efforts don’t seem to be enough to get back on track. Choose your team-mates wisely and don’t be afraid to call on them when the need arises.
In Find a Way, Diana quotes her favorite line from Mary Oliver’s beloved poem, Wild Geese, which has been an ongoing source of inspiration for her and for many others, throughout the years. It is the question, “What is it that you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” That may be a good place to end this piece…. and a good place to begin the rest of your life.