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

BY: Steve Pauwel                           Diana_Nyad

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.

About the author:  Steve Pauwels is pastor of Church of the King, Londonderry, NH and managing editor of 

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