How Else Do You Spell ‘Diana Nyad’? I.N.S.P.I.R.A.T.I.O.N.

Written by Steve Pauwels on September 6, 2013

The announcement came over the radio about lunchtime on Labor Day. For a fleeting moment, I thought I’d misheard the details: Champion swimmer, journalist and author Diana Nyad, aged sixty-four, was only a few miles from completing her Cuba-to-Florida swim.

Aged sixty-four?!?

I’m a reasonably fit fifty-something, but that news still impressed me — seriously impressed.  A jolt of inspiration ripped through me like 50,000 inexorable volts.

Then, approximately 2 PM, news came: the New-York-City-born endurance athlete was ashore: fifty-three hours in the Atlantic, 110 miles crossed, the first person officially to successfully crawl the Florida Straits’ length without security of a shark cage.

Nyad waded blearily onto a Florida Keys beach, face sunburned and swollen, her speech slurred from the just-concluded ordeal, and delivered a pithy, celebratory statement: “I got three messages … One is we should never, ever give up. Two is you never are too old to chase your dreams. Three is it looks like a solitary sport, but it’s a team.”

As I said: Inspiration factor? HUGE.

1) “[W]e should never, ever give up“:

Presumably, Diana Nyad tracks with President Calvin Coolidge who famously declaimed, “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence … Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘Press On!’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”

Nyad’s September 2nd conquest of the Havana/Florida stretch capped five stabs at the feat, her first attempt occurring way back in 1978 — thirty-five years ago. Jimmy Carter was in the White House, disco music at its zenith, Grease and Animal House among that year’s box-office hits. I was a teenager; Nyad twenty-eight years old.

Batteringly tempestuous seas broke her that time. Yes, she failed; but didn’t surrender.

In ‘79, Nyad set a world record for open water distance swimming, covering the 102 miles between the Bahamas and Florida’s Juno Beach in twenty-seven and a half hours.

Gigs in journalism, sports commentary and motivational speaking followed.

But she never forsook the goal first seeded into her while visiting 1950’s, pre-Castro Cuba as an eight-year-old: outlasting that Havana/Florida waterway.

Between 2010 and 2012, entering her seventh decade, Nyad took on the Cuba-to-Florida beast three more times — again,  faltering in each of those efforts, succumbing to a cruel, hours-long asthma attack, stings from unsympathetically ubiquitous jellyfish or a menacing lightning storm.

Yet, her motto became: “Find a way” — and she did. Hazarding miles of shivering cold, physical exhaustion, salt-water-poisoned vomiting, bloated tongue, lips and bruised mouth, threat of shark attack and, again, those jellyfish, this go-round the Los Angeles resident finished what she’d started as a young woman.

“I never knew I would suffer the way I did.” she conceded, post-victory, to CNN. “You don’t like it. It’s not doing well. Find a way.”

It’s a life-creed which would much benefit today’s X-box-addicted, I-Phone-hypnotized, perspiration-averse Millennial Generation.

A twenty-six-year-old named Tebow might find it useful right about now, as well. On the heels of his latest, New England Patriot disappointment — his third pro-football berth lost in eighteen months — and in the teeth of legions of naysayers, the Heisman-Trophy winner brashly tweeted:  “I will remain in relentless pursuit of continuing my lifelong dream of being an NFL quarterback.”

Sounds like a pep talk, courtesy of Diana Nyad, could be just the rhetorical fist-bump young Tim needs — Tim and oodles among the listless or demoralized masses.

2) “[Y]ou never are too old to chase your dreams“:

An acquaintance of mine from the local coffee shop is an eighty-four-year-old triathlete. Three or four times a year he races, vigorously and competitively. A common topic of our regular chats is what comprised his work-out that particular day. Time in the pool or on the bicycle? A run? Weight-sets or his calisthenics regime?

The guy is a physical hero of mine, but I must concede, even he, probably, could take a cue from Diana Nyad in the athletic-prodigy department.

Last week, Nyad emphasized she was aiming to exemplify “you can dream at any age.” Elaborating at a Friday news conference in Havana: “This time, I am sixty-four … [T]his time I am all the way across … going to think about all those life lessons that came up during the [previous] swim[s].”

So, maybe her advanced age is not the disability most would dismissively assume? Perhaps decades of water-logged experience have furnished her a leg-up on the Diane Nyad of yesteryear?

That’s an audaciously zesty approach to getting older.

The Bible records the exploits of Moses’ buddy, the Israelite warrior Caleb. Aged eighty-five,  he possessed the vitality of a man half that. Circumstances delayed him his inheritance forty years — so he waited, patiently but eagerly, and took it as an elderly man (Joshua 14:6-13).

Years’ passing doesn’t inescapably have to add up to physical or mental obsolescence or quality-of-life decay. Too many middle-agers or old-timers,  fully capable of fresh achievements, fresh contributions, buy into woe-is-me, aches-and-pains expectations which freeze them into rocking-chair idleness.

For Diana Nyad? No rocking chair. No boat. Into the water!

3) “[I]t looks like a solitary sport, but it is a team”:

In Nyad’s case? Thirty-five teammates accompanying her from promising launch to bone-weary wrap-up.

Paradoxically, a person only achieves the soaringest individual heights when she learns to lean on and appreciate the role others play.

Nyad plainly embraced that building block well before her sixty-fourth birthday — demonstrated by her eventual success.

Lots of folks, sadly, limp into that eighty-forth — or ninety-forth! — milestone, still refusing the lesson.

Diana Nyad has reflected, “[A] lot of people … have gotten depressed, pinned in, pinned down with living lives they don’t want … [Y]ou tell me what your dreams are. What are you chasing? It’s not impossible.”

Reportedly, one of her wishes was to supply inspiration for others.

Clearly: mission accomplished.

Image: Diana Nyad; still from Youtube video, “Streamlined News: Junior Worlds Recap, Nyad Back in the Water”; author: swimmingworldtv; Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Steve Pauwels is pastor of Church of the King, Londonderry, NH and host of Striker Radio with Steve Pauwels on the Red State Talk Radio Network. He's also husband to the lovely Maureen and proud father of three fine sons: Mike, Sam and Jake.