As Diana Nyad crawled out of the sea Monday, she was a wobbly, disoriented ball of inspiration for our times, a rebuke to the idea that we age out of our dreams.
It took her five tries, but she finally swam unprotected from Cuba to Key West, Fla.
Who has that kind of drive at 64? Who has that kind of heart?
Even if she hadn’t completed this 110-mile swim, she’d be an inspiration to all the aging Baby Boomers who fight to stay fit but secretly wonder if the battle is lost, or all the hormone-challenged women who think they’re too tired to tie on their running shoes each day. Really, she's an inspiration to anyone, anywhere who wonders how to persevere through failure.
It took her five tries, but Nyad, a once-great long-distance swimmer, finally achieved her “extreme dream.” The poisonous jellyfish stings, asthma attacks and bad weather that plagued her previous swims were blissfully absent.
Still, watching a video of her final moments in the water was both exhilarating and painful.
You could barely see her at first, as a cheering crowd, standing in the water, obscured the exhausted swimmer.
But then, the crowd parted, and there she was, still swimming, nearly 53 hours after leaping off a seawall into the ocean in Havana.
As her feet found the sand, she seemed weakened and unsure. This was not the picture of some triumphant athlete at the peak of her power. This was a 64-year-old woman on her last leg. She looked dazed, wobbly, disoriented. Her face was burnt and swollen. Surrounded by cameras and screaming fans, Nyad stumbled alone. No one touched her. She came ashore under her own considerably diminished power.
In 1978, her first attempt to swim from Cuba to Florida had ended in failure. There was one more long swim, from the Bahamas to Florida in 1979. Then, she stopped swimming altogether. She became a journalist, wrote books, appeared regularly as a commentator on public radio programs and television.
In 2010, after some heartbreak, the death of her mother, she began grappling with what she called “existential angst.” The years were passing quickly and she had unfinished business: that Cuba-to-Florida swim record she had undertaken so many years earlier. She had not swum a stroke in 31 years.
In 2011, amid tremendous publicity, she failed again. A few months later, she gave a TED talk about her swim. Its irresistible title: "Extreme Swimming with the World's Most Dangerous Jellyfish."
She was funny, serious and upbeat. To pass the time while swimming she said, she counted numbers in four languages, and sang to herself from a list of songs she'd memorized in a particular order.
“I couldn’t wait to get into the dark in the middle of the night because that’s when Neil Young comes out,” she said. “You’d think you’d be singing Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah,’ out in the majesty of the ocean, not songs about heroin addiction in New York City. For some reason, I couldn’t wait to get into the dark of the night and be singing, “I heard you knocking at my cellar door/I love you baby and I want some more/Oh, oh, the damage done.”
Even her 65-song mental playlist, she said, was not enough to overcome jellyfish stings that injected her with a poison that slowed her respiration and movements.
That swim was not a failure, she said. It was a prelude to what she felt certain would be her eventual success.
“The difference in accepting this particular defeat is that sometimes, if cancer has won, if there's death and we have no choice, then grace and acceptance are necessary,” Nyad said. “But that ocean's still there. This hope is still alive. And I don't want to be the crazy woman who does it for years and years and years, and tries and fails and tries and fails and tries and fails, but I can swim from Cuba to Florida, and I will swim from Cuba to Florida.”
And so she did. On Monday, when she caught her breath, she said she had 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 takes a team.”
I hope they’re still putting champions on Wheaties boxes.
I want to see that woman in my cereal aisle.