There are champions among us who light our way by being daring or courageous, but who also inspire us to be the champions of our own dreams. I was fortunate to meet such a person and her name is Diana Nyad.
[Tweet ” As someone remarked to me Diana Nyad truly is an empowered spirit. @cathyches @diananyad”]
The champion swimmer, author, journalist and motivational speaker had me on the edge of my seat as she regaled the New Jersey Speakers Series audience with stories of her triumphant swims around the island of Manhattan, the Bahamas to Florida and, at age 64, from Cuba to Florida (111 miles) without the aid of a shark cage.
She faced many setbacks on these attempts yet they only seemed to strengthen her resolve to reach her goals. For instance, on her first try around Manhattan she was pulled from the East River, in the blackness of night, after many hours of swimming. Nyad was found muttering gibberish and it was discovered she contracted a virus from the contaminated waters. It took her 10 days to recover. But that didn’t stop her. She completed her goal on her second try in a little under 8 hours.
Failure is never an option.
Her determination to swim began at a young age with the help of a coach who saw her potential. Her mother, Lucy, was born into a wealthy family and eventually married Arisotle Nyad, a Greek-Eypgtian who Nyad did a wonderful impression of. He sounded larger than life and told her when she was five:
“He pointed to the word naiad and explained that in Greek myth ‘these were the nymphs that swam in the lakes and rivers and the oceans to protect them for the gods.’ The modern definition says ‘girl or woman champion swimmer.’ This is your destiny, dahling!’”
After an audience member asked Nyad a pointed question, she skirted around the child abuse she suffered as a child at the hands of a swim coach. She gently explained that she’d like to stay on topic and, frankly, that was fine with me. Abuse in any form is important to talk about, but the evening belonged to inspiration and empowerment.
She continued on, weaving the importance of teamwork, mental endurance and determination into every story, particularly when she was discussing her swim between Cuba and Florida.
Swimming in total blackness for hours, lit only by her cap’s red light and the slight illuminated path provided by her team (to avoid luring unwanted sea life to her path) friendship and trust is a common theme in every story.
Through excruciating pain, difficult currents and storms, several painful jellyfish and man-of-war bites and an asthma attack, her goal was difficult but not impossible. She leaned on the writings of Stephen Hawking, counting and singing, and hallucinations about “The Wizard of Oz” and the yellow brick road to keep her mind busy during the long hours in the water.
Nyad finally accomplished her goal after the fifth try.
Ms. Nyad’s enthusiasm and zest for life is infectious. She lifts us up by making us feel as if we’re champions as well.
To borrow a phrase from a friend of mine, Diana Nyad is the real deal.
Let me explain. At the cocktail party given in her honor after the presentation I wanted to speak to Ms. Nyad about her upcoming EverWalk 2016. Her concern about recent reports that sitting for more than twenty minutes is unhealthy prompted her to design a program to get people moving by walking across America. By joining her in EverWalk you can walk a mile or a hundred miles. Just get up and walk!
[Tweet ” I was interested in how to get the #disability community involved in #EverWalk2016 @diananyad @cathyches”]
When I met Ms. Nyad she was interested in my work with the disability community, bouncing around with excitement as I talked, I asked how the community could join EverWalk. She wanted to hear my thoughts on including people with canes, scooters and wheelchairs, and those who can’t walk far She asked for my business card, and told me to sign up on her website for more information.
Whether I hear from her or not I appreciated her enthusiasm about being inclusive.
Then she turned to one of my friends and asked what she did for a living. Another lively discussion ensued. She was equally fascinated about her and her work. It felt like we were with an old friend.
Diana Nyad is a champion in more ways than one. I hope our paths cross again, but if they don’t I thank her for touching the hearts and minds of so many fans. She is an American treasure.
NOTE: The New Jersey Speakers Series is sponsored by Fairleigh Dickinson University and held at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. I received three complimentary tickets to this performance but all opinions expressed are, as always, completely my own.