“It always seems impossible until it’s done.” – – Nelson Mandela
I first became acquainted with Diana Nyad years ago when she hosted a public radio show called The Savvy Traveler. From the show I knew that Diana had been some kind of accomplished swimmer much earlier in her life but I did not listen closely enough to pick up on further details.
The show went off the air and Diana Nyad drifted from my consciousness. A few year later I heard her name again in relation to a swim she was trying to make, from Cuba to Florida, which had never been completed by anyone else. I remember thinking, “Hey! That’s the travel show host!” I was intrigued that swimming was still a part of her life and that Diana must be in her sixties. I was rooting for her to succeed. She was attempting a feat that had never been achieved by anyone before. She was defying a couple of stereotypes about athletes, since she was a woman – and a pretty old one at that. I was impressed and I love a good story about overcoming obstacles.
When she didn’t make it to shore I was truly disappointed. About a year later I learned she was trying it again and I began rooting for her all over again. What I had not realized is that Diana had first attempted the same swim 36 years earlier in 1978 when she was only 28 years old. She gave up her attempts for decades before trying four more times since 2011, before she finally succeeded at the at the age of 64. When she came out of the water, she said, “I have three messages: One is, we should never, ever give up. Two is, you are never too old to chase your dream. And three is, it looks like a solitary sport but it takes a team.”
Watching the video of her coming out of the water brought tears to my eyes. Events like this are such a parable for life, compressed down to one moment. I could relate to that feeling of relief and joy and calm that comes from finally reaching a goal after trying for so long. It is a reminder that there is a payoff for trying and never giving up. It was a message of hope. It resonated with me and encouraged me to keep going in those areas that I still struggle in, no matter how long it has been or how old I feel.
If we were able to watch both the emotional and physical journey of Diana’s four failed attempts to swim to Florida, I’m sure we would have seen her disappointment, and self-pity. We would have seen her stomp her foot and say “Life’s not fair!” We would have observed her giving up… and then see her decide to try again. Life is rarely a straight line from setting a goal to making it and I doubt that even the amazing Diana Nyad was perfectly sportsmanlike during her entire journey. I bet she suffered from discouragement just like the rest of us, but she just kept finding her resilience and trying again. There is always a ready audience for the story of someone crossing the finish line and winning, but a story of struggle and falling down and trying over and over is far more mundane.
I remember back when cancer was a topic that no one talked about. It was the dreaded “C” word and if you were diagnosed with it, it was a death sentence. However, that began to change about 30 years ago when people started talking about cancer openly. I would be watching Oprah or one of the early talk shows like Phil Donohue where someone would be talking about surviving cancer. After watching the survivors talk about how people with cancer should never lose hope it occurred to me their message was an easy one to spread after already reaching the goal of survival. I remember thinking how much more powerful the message would be if it came from someone who had not yet survived cancer. That is the hardest place to find strength – when the prognosis is still not good or the percentages of survival are pretty low – not when the obstacle has already been overcome.
Diana Nyad is old by any athletic standard. She had failed at the age of 28 – she was now 36 years older. She was doing something that had never been done before. She had failed four times before. She had every shred of evidence telling her that she could not do this – that no one could. But, she tried it anyway. As thrilling as crossing the finish line was, it was not her finest moment. Her finest moments were each time she got back in the water after needing to get out on her first, second, third and fourth attempt. It was every time she was in pain, out of breath or delirious but she kept swimming – even if she never ultimately made it to shore. Trying again and again is where true courage lies.