Last weekend, 64-year old Diana Nyad swam 110-miles from Havana, Cuba to Key West, Florida, in 53 hours, without a shark cage. She had a big team of people to help her prepare and a big team of people who were with her along the way, but it was still the one woman who swam in those waters, emerging at the end, to stumble and climb out of the ocean, swollen lips, seemingly delirious, and, of course, exhausted.
Usually, these large-scale athletic-attempts at breaking some record don’t really resonate with me. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the efforts of athletes, but they seem so abstract and removed from the regular-everyday-world to me. I prefer the dreams and stories of high school sports and the everyday attempts of regular folks, balancing running, or swimming, or softball, or whatever sport, with everyday life. For some reason, however, Nyad’s dogged attempts at the swim over the years held my attention, albeit superficially.
Maybe it’s because I felt somewhat familiar with her. Mostly, though, I only knew her voice. She used to contribute stories to and sometimes host The Savvy Traveler on the radio on Sunday nights. She reported stories about sports business on Marketplace on the radio and even substituted as host of the show. I heard her voice with weekly frequency on radio news. It was during the end of one of those stories or shows that another voice asked Diana about her own various attempts and successes at breaking these long-distance swimming records. I tucked that piece of information away into the back pocket of my mind, along with jean fuzz, a washed movie ticket stub, and a wadded up gum wrapper. Then, I heard about her attempt at the Cuba-Florida swim in 2010, and thought it disappointing that she didn’t succeed, but found it inspiring that she had made the attempt. Like a lot of things, once you become aware of a person or an event, you seem to hear about it or pay attention to it more. Then there were her tries (and trials, I’m sure) in 2011 and 2012.
Some might see those attempts as failures, but there are so many things that go into an epic swim that are beyond the swimmer. There were the sharks and jellyfish and ocean temperatures and ocean currents. It turns out this woman wasn’t just attempting a world record, she was perhaps pursuing a vendetta. This past summer, it seems that there was much more news and publicity about Nyad’s fifth try. One of the remarkable facts about all of this, is that her first try was at the age of 30, which was to be her retirement from professional swimming. I love that an unfinished try or failed attempt became something she would do again thirty years later, at twice the age. Most of us, at least in our youth-obsessed culture, seem to write off the years past forty, but we know that the experience and insights in those years is what can make people their most unusual, their best versions of themselves. Those that continue to improve and grow are trying at the massive and minute.
Like everything else about Nyad, I heard about her success on the radio on my way to work. I did a little car cheer and dance and went on with the day. It was a couple of days later, while waiting in line at the hardware store, where I was facing a TV screen, that I saw the clip of the final few minutes of her swim. The stumbling and the swollen lips made her record attempt all the more vivid, but my emotion was in the immediate radio coverage, because that is the medium in how I knew her.
It got me to thinking about her attempt and final success. What is it about trying? What is it about failing? What is it about a dedicated pursuit of the same try? Watch a one-year-old try and try to walk, fall down repeatedly, and get up again. Watch a six-year-old learn to ride a bike, recently released from its training wheels, with the elation and excitement of those few seconds of joy and balance, and then fall down again. Trying and failing and succeeding is the stuff of fairy tales and cultural myths. Depending upon the point of view, the perseverance in a big attempt is either lauded or ridiculed. The oft-repeated quote comes to mind, “‘Tis a lesson you should heed, Try, try again. If at first you don’t, succeed, Try, try again (Thomas H. Palmer, Teacher’s Manual, 1840). Is it madness or genius? Maybe it depends upon the frame of mind, or the perspective of time. Success, with the vantage point of hindsight, doesn’t seem like sickness. Without the win, without the record, though, is it still success? I would say the bravery is in the attempt, in the doing itself, regardless of the result.
Most of us do not get to try for a monument, for a world record, but we do get to try everyday. Sometimes the failure or success is just as teetering as the toddler’s. Sometimes, it’s the little, unseen tries. Our attempts are getting past the trials, to find the sacred and the blessedness of the moments. The accumulation of those moments is a big, but ordinary life.
What are your epic and ordinary attempts at something big or small? What calls you to keep trying? When do you know to let the attempt go, to move on to another moment? What are the unseen successes and failures that are much bigger than the euphoria of a moment? What are the foundations that allow you the freedom to dream and do? Will you shout out loud or bask in the silence? What is your trial or your try? Who or what calls you to your next big try?