Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Filmmaker's Journal: trying to keep up with Diana Nyad

Scuba divers, like myself, like to think that we become one with the ocean every time we put a regulator in our mouths and dip below the surface. Boaters and hard-core yachtsman, I'm sure, feel the same way. And perhaps even fishermen. It's a combination of appreciating the environment we are in and, at the same time, testing or challenging it a bit - because, after all, we are being the intruder.

This past week I had the opportunity to meet and film someone who takes the physical and metaphysical experience of the oceans to a level that I can only marvel at. Shooting a segment for CNN's Medical News with Dr. Sanjay Gupta, I had the pleasure of working with Diana Nyad, a world record-holder in open ocean, long-distance swimming. We were filming in the Raleigh Runnels Memorial Pool at the beautiful Malibu, California campus of Pepperdine University. With a warm day and a clear sky to work with, I proceeded to put Diana through her paces as she swam lap after lap while I shot her from a variety of angles. I say put her "through her paces" totally tongue-in-cheek, as this exercise was a mere stroll through the park for her. But by the end of the day, I was exhausted.

Long-distance ocean swimming is an intense exercise in endurance, concentration and, in many ways, becoming one with your environment. The distances that Diana covers and the hours that she spends continuously swimming are incredible. Her world record is 102.5 miles, from Bimini Island to Florida, over two days. Over 102 miles and two days non-stop.

Diana prefers to swim without the aid of a shark cage - there are those swimmers who feel the use of a shark cage makes the swim a bit less challenging - not because of the concern for sharks but because the cage acts like a box that tows the swimmer along, keeping him or her on the right path and smoothing out ocean swells. Diana deals with the possibility of shark encounters by using several electronic Shark Shields attached to a following kayak.

Nourishment is provided throughout the swim in the form of fluids and high protein snacks that are totally burned up to satisfy her caloric needs and provide little waste. Diana experiences all the various levels of extreme physical and mental endurance that you can imagine, getting the mind to focus so that the adrenaline and endorphins keep pumping before the body systems eventually say they have had enough.

Diana completed her swim from Bimini to Florida in 1979 and then took a break from swimming - for 31 years. A year ago, at age 60, she began training to break her own record by trying for a distance that rough seas had kept her from accomplishing in 1978: Havana, Cuba to Florida; 103 miles and 60 hours.

As I found out in the Pepperdine pool, this is a woman to be reckoned with. An inspiring and indomitable force - and I had to try to keep up with her with scuba gear and an underwater housing in my hands. Well, all right, no excuses. She made me look like a total wuss as I gasped and dragged air from my tank at a phenomenal rate, feeling my heart leap from chest as I worked my dive fins overtime to try to keep up.

Eventually, I decided, well, enough of the underwater side-by-side dolly shots. I'll just float here and let her do all the work.

After a number of laps, you catch yourself before asking her if she needs a break. Asking if she was getting tired seemed a pretty lame idea, but actually breaks were called for to allow her to warm up. With well-developed muscles and minimal fat, even in a heated pool, Diana can lose body heat quickly. So, occasional jumps into a nearby heated whirlpool did the trick.

Life is short, which means that the goals we set for ourselves - whatever they may be - should be sought after with determination, not complacency. Diana Nyad, knows this very well. And she melds her mind and body with the sea to accomplish things that we can certainly take inspiration from, whatever the endeavor, whatever our age or sex.

As she quotes from poet Mary Oliver on her website's home page, "What is it you want to do with your one wild and precious life?"

Learn more about Diana Nyad at her website.

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