Diana Nyad has at least temporary ownership of the word perseverence. And she may come to define it.
We wouldn’t be surprised if the word “nyadic,” to characterize a person who never gives up, were to enter the lexicon.
On Monday, Nyad became the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without the help of a shark cage. It was her fifth try.
Her last try was cut short by treacherous conditions and boat trouble. Storms tossed the ocean; currents pushed her in the wrong direction; and jellyfish stung her repeatedly, leaving her face painfully swollen.
That would have discouraged most swimmers from trying again, and no one would have accused Nyad of being a wimp if she had decided not to attempt the 110-mile swim once more at the age of 64. But she was following her own set of rules, one of which is “never give up.”
This time the conditions were better. And this time she was ready for the jellyfish, wearing a full bodysuit, gloves, booties and a mask at night, when jellyfish surface.
Her support team used special equipment to surround her with a weak electrical field designed to keep sharks at bay. But swimming without a shark cage was a significant part of Nyad’s feat.
In addition to protecting swimmers from sharks, the cages help break the waves and create a drafting effect that makes swimming easier. Doing without the cage increased the difficulty.
Another of Nyad’s rules is, “you’re never too old to chase your dream.” That one we might argue with.
Few people half her age are capable of making that swim. And, at some point, the natural physical degradation that is part of aging does limit the dreams we are capable of chasing.
Not many people nearing retirement age will be able to run a 4-minute mile or climb Mount Everest. Or swim from Cuba to Florida.
While people in their 60s might be inspired by Nyad to stretch themselves and take on an especially challenging task, Nyad’s accomplishment is a testament to a level of willpower and stamina that ordinary people don’t possess.
Her third rule – she enumerated all three through swollen lips as she staggered onto the beach in Key West – was that “it looks like a solitary sport, but it is a team.” And certainly there were people watching her and helping her along the entire route.
Doctors traveled with the team to make sure she didn’t overtax herself. A boat dragged a line behind it to keep her on course. Trainers encouraged and fed her during the 53-hour ordeal (she stopped to eat but never got out of the water).
But again, we might quibble with rule No. 3. Sure, she had help, but as for the endless stroking and kicking through mile after mile of choppy, shark- and jellyfish-infested water, that was all her, all alone.
If Nyad inspires us, it’s not necessarily to replicate her astonishing exploit or to attempt a feat of similar difficulty. It’s enough that she has demonstrated that the human will can overcome daunting physical obstacles, that hard work and dedication can pay off in ways that might have seemed unimagineable at first.
And that is no small thing. In fact, it’s the stuff of heroes.