Sunday, September 8, 2013

Diana Nyad: turning the Extreme Dream into reality

In case you have been too engrossed in the news coming from Syria or who is entering the semi-finals on America's Got Talent, on September 2nd, Diana Nyad achieved her goal of swimming from Havana, Cuba to Key West, Florida - a distance of 103 miles (110 miles when you take into account course corrections).  This was her fifth attempt to cover this distance and she completed it at age sixty-four.

I was honored to be a member of her shark watch team in 2011 in what was, technically, her second attempt - the first attempt being in 1978 and then she took a 30-year plus break from endurance swimming. (Click here for my follow up post to that event).  I was asked to join her on her next later two attempts but schedules conflicted and I remained a spectator since then. (Other posts here and here.)

For this last successful attempt, Diana had the best of weather and ocean conditions - calm, warm, and with obliging currents.  The stretch between Cuba and Florida can be frought with changing, unpredictable currents that can push swimmers off course and sap their strength.  This time, the currents were less of an issue; in fact, at one point, they worked to her advantage, giving her a push from behind which helped keep her overall speed high.

One of the biggest challenges she had faced in previous attempts was the threat of stings from some of the warm water sea jellies that cruise through the area.  In many years past, it was the threat of sharks that was always the primary concern.  Ocean endurance swimmers have used shark cages in the water but, with time, those are now frowned upon as they nullify much of the effect of the currents.  Some have described swimming in the cage as like swimming in a bath tub (previously, one swimmer had completed the Cuba-to-Florida swim using a shark cage and completing the distance in less than 30 hours, compared to Diana's time of 53 hours).

But times have changed.  Sharks are threatened by commercial fishing and illegal poaching, and so the chances for a shark encounter have dwindled, while the number of sea jellies has grown dramatically.  Scientists do not yet have definitive answers as to why, but factors such as warming ocean temperatures, pollution, and the depletion of the sea jellies' natural predators could all play a role.

For Diana, sea jellies were her major threat, as their powerful stings were deciding factors in her being unable to complete some of her previous attempts.  For this final attempt, she had a specially designed, head-to-toe swimsuit and face mask that she would don during the day or night when sea jellies were anticipated.  The use of this protective gear was no picnic.  

"To put that on [the protective suit] was like putting on a wedding gown in the ocean," said Steven Munatones, open water swimming coach and adviser to Diana in the past. 

Diana's online web and social media team have done an excellent job in providing ongoing information and updates during her swim and in the many weeks and months of preparation leading up to the event.  You can peruse through her website at

Beyond all the facts and details is the undeniable resolve of someone who had a goal gnawing at her, in the back of her mind, for several decades and who decided to achieve her goal despite the fact that she was getting into her 60s when she resumed training.  Much has been written about her determination.  And with each unsuccessful attempt there was an avalanche of support from fans and well-wishers, but there was always the specter of determination turning into obsession.

It's a fine line: determination and obsession.  Perhaps there is no difference, really.  One may be applauded for their determination when they succeed and labeled a Captain Ahab obsessive when they fail.  Or perhaps the difference lies in what the goal means to a larger audience.  It could be determination when others can take something away from the experience that benefits their lives, their outlook on life and the world.  And it's an obsession when it is a purely self-centered activity, particularly when it is at the expense of others.

Working as I do with others in the ocean conservation community, I have had the opportunity to meet a variety of people, getting a sense of why they are so committed to what they are doing.  Altruistic determination or self-centered obsession?  I've seen both.  The ones who I feel are making a true, quantifiable difference to either the science of ocean conservation or the education of those who are unaware of the extant of ocean conservation issues - those are the determined ones.  The ones, like a Diana Nyad, who encourage people to realize that there are no limits, no goals that should be dismissed, at any age, when the end result is something that could benefit his or her fellow man.

Diana's "Extreme Dream" has been reached and her next goal, her next challenge, will be to find a replacement.  I'm sure she will be busy for some time on the speaking circuit and perhaps, beyond the technical feat of the Cuba-to-Florida swim, that will be her lasting legacy - how she turned determination into motivation for many others.  Some of us will reach our own personal goals and many of us will not.  But it will be the journey that will ultimately prove the measure of the individual, not the feat itself.  

Which is why Diana Nyad's motto over these past years has always been "Onward!"