An Exhibition of Mental Toughness

103.  53.  64.  35.

In the open water swimming world today, those numbers took on the magnitude of stories like, “Lindbergh Lands in Paris,” and “Man Walks on the Moon.”

  • 103 – Miles from Havana to Key West
  • 53 – Hours of swimming
  • 64 – Years old
  • 35 – Years during which she made five attempts

Diana Nyad broke any number of world records and “never been done before” platitudes in a swim that has eluded her – and everyone else who has tried it – for all of these years.

Diana’s swim is about eight hours old now, and I have already seen people pooh-poohing her achievement, many having to do with the measures she took to evade large-toothed and long-tentacled predators.  I am not one of those people.  I think what Diana Nyad has done is other-worldly, and there is no limit to my respect for her.

I can add in some other numbers that weren’t stressed in the news reports.  How about the number two?  That is the number of nights she spent in the Straits of Florida in the pitch black, grinding away through the gauntlet of jellyfish – the same jellyfish that have stymied her attempts before – entire species of which could kill her.  Or, what about the number three?  That is the number of “lessons learned” of which Diana reminded the throng that greeted her on the finishing beach, including:

  • Never, ever give up,
  • You are never too old to chase your dream, and
  • It looks like a solitary sport, but it’s a team.

I have now seen the interview from the beach replayed several times, and I am disappointed to say that in most of them, the third of her lessons is edited out.  As far as I am concerned, every open water swim begins and ends with teamwork, and it is the lesson that trumps all others.

What the numbers don’t capture is the mental fortitude – toughness, really – to complete a swim of this magnitude.  I have completed swims of 10, 12, and 14 hours, and managed to keep my head in the game the whole time.  What if those times were longer?  What if those times were tripled?  Keeping the mental edge for 30, 40 or 50 hours is almost incomprehensible to me.

I met Diana once, many years ago.  I was at a swim meet at Indiana University in the spring of 1979, and Diana was there to see Jim “Doc” Counsilman.  I was visiting with Doc, who was an icon in swimming and a wonderful guy, about his English Channel swim that was planned for later that year.  Diana happened to be there, and Doc introduced us.  It was some months after she had tried to complete the Havana to Key West the first time, so I felt like I knew all about her.   She was, shall we say, “pretty intense.”  By all reports, that intensity hasn’t changed much in the 35 years since our chance meeting.

So, perhaps it should come as no surprise that, after being unable to complete this swim of Havana to Key West once, twice, three times, and then four times, Diana was back to take it on a fifth time.  I assume that she shares my relief that she won’t have to attempt it a sixth time.

I have had the good fortune to participate in this sport of open water swimming, and have been able to swim Tampa Bay, the English Channel and the Catalina Channel.  Nothing I have done even approaches what Diana Nyad completed today.  For some of us, this will be a day we will always remember.

103.  53.  64.  35.  Wow.

See you at the beach.

I will report back.