Distance swimmer Diana Nyad didn’t realize her dream of swimming from Havana, Cuba to Key West when she made her first attempt as a 20-something swimmer in 1978. She failed again (twice) in 2011, and again in 2012. But take one glance at this afternoon’s jubilant headline from CNN, and Nyad’s enduring legacy is clear: This remarkable woman won’t be remembered for the four times she didn’t make it, but for the one time she did.
After nearly 53 hours of swimming, Nyad became the first person to complete the 110-mile journey from Cuba to Key West without a shark cage, flippers, or a wet suit. Yes, she had help. A directional streamer kept her on-course. A special mask protected her from the worst of the jellyfish. And a support team kept her fed, hydrated, and safe–well, as best they could. But Nyad alone swam every stroke, battled fatigue, cold, and currents, and pushed through the worst resistance of all: the doubting voices, both internal and external, that told her to give up, to stop pushing, and to let go of her (extreme) dream.
Fortunately for us, she didn’t give up. And I say “fortunately,” not just because I’m inspired by her courage, persistence, and strength. Actually, I think Nyad’s triumph tells a bigger story–a story about knowing who you are, and being unafraid of what that means.
Most of us don’t dream of plowing through jellyfish- and shark-infested waters to achieve the kind of athletic feat that Nyad did. But our individual dreams may be, in their own way, just as extreme. Maybe we dream of making a difference in a failing school system. Maybe we dream of being artists in a world that says art isn’t valued, or that no one cares. Or maybe we dream of reconciling with an estranged family member, or a friend with whom we’ve had a falling-out.
Whatever the dream, it expresses something of who we are. Our reason for being, the contribution we have to make to the world, the spark, the inner fire that makes you uniquely you, or me uniquely me. Doubting voices will attempt to squash and invalidate these dreams. The darkness of “I can’t” or “what’s the point?” will try to put out that light. We’ll be called fools, crazies, dreamers–and we’ll be assured that everyone sees the epic failure ahead. Everyone, that is, but us.
Of course, sometimes circumstances will force us to reevaluate our dreams, and to reshape and rethink them. Diana Nyad saw that. She had to make multiple attempts, refining her approach to the swim each time. But she kept the vision. She worked hard, both physically and mentally, to make sure that real strength, not just the force of ego, was driving her. But through that work, she must have also found a measure of grace–the grace that allowed her to persist with her dream, no, with her destiny.
That, to me, is Nyad’s real victory. Having the courage to say, “I was born to do this.” She was humble enough to revisit that bold statement, but she was also fearless enough to continue reaching for it, in spite of naysayers, age, and past experiences. Her success was not quick or difficulty-free, but it was inevitable. That she proved today.
Do I have Nyad’s courage? I’ve faced my own share of “I can’ts,” obstacles, and naysayers, especially in the short course of my writing career. And I admit: I’ve had times when I’ve just wanted to stop swimming. We probably all have. Today, though, a 64-year-old woman showed me what happens when you fearlessly embrace your destiny. When you resolve to put one arm in front of the other until night turns to day, dreams do become reality, and you reach the other shore.