Last month, some publications proclaimed a trio of young female swimmers the stars of their sport after the teenagers set world records at the FINA world championships in Barcelona, Spain.
But Monday, it was 64-year-old Diana Nyad who captured the world’s attention, becoming the first person to successfully swim the treacherous 110-mile stretch of ocean that divides Cuba and the United States without a shark cage.
It’s a remarkable feat, made even more noteworthy given that swimming is so often considered a sport that favors the young. The only other person to cross the Florida Straits was a 22-year-old Australian woman, and she used a shark cage.
Yet for Nyad, it was her age and, of course, the right weather conditions that helped her achieve something that had long eluded her. She made her first attempt in 1978, and then tried again some 30 years later. Each time, she was plucked out of the shark-infested waters, often her face swollen from jellyfish stings. But on her fifth attempt, and just a few days after turning 64, she finally succeeded.
Like many others, I am inspired by Nyad’s achievement. I grew up at a time when female competitive swimming was ruled by young women barely old enough to drive. Twenty-plus swimmers were considered at the end of their careers, regardless of whether they were sprinters or distance swimmers.
Even today, some of the biggest names in the sport are still in high school. Missy Franklin was only 17 when she captured gold for the U.S. at the 2012 London Olympics. And at 16, Katie Ledecky dominates long-distance events, setting world records last month in Barcelona.
But Nyad proves that women can no longer be viewed through the prism of age or gender. Her accomplishment, along with that of other athletes, gives lie to the old notions of how long women can compete.
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