Last week's New Yorker featured a profile of famous swimmer Diana Nyad.
The quick background is that she first gained national fame in 1975 when she failed an attempt to swim around Manhattan after eight hours of swimming and a stream of incoherent half-conscious mumbled words signified a contracted virus from the East River. On Nyad's second try she broke the record by nearly an hour, finishing the swim in seven hours and fifty-seven minutes.
The profile outlines this story and continues to shade color on who Nyad was and is, how she grew to love these feats of outstanding accomplishment. Throughout the seven page feature we also hear the story of Nyad's attempt to swim from Cuba to Florida. That's a "hundred and eleven miles, the equivalent of five English Channel crossings, and the longest open-ocean swim in history." The next longest open ocean swim is Lake Michigan at a paltry sixty miles.
The part of the story that caught my eye (and fascination) was this amazing line:
Nyad has always believed that a champion is a person who doesn't give up. (In high school, she hung a poster on her wall that read, "A diamond is a lump of coal that stuck with it.") But another kind of person who doesn't give up is a lunatic. "I sort of thought, Oh, she's crazy - and she is on some level crazy," Nyad's friend Karen Sauvigne told [The New Yorker].
Nyad's story is impressive for so many reasons - combatting jellyfish for four days in the ocean, swimming in a cage to thwart sharks, vomiting in the water, and more. But here's the real kicker: she failed the swim four times in a row and reached near death each attempt. By the time Nyad saddled up for her fifth swim, she was 62 years old with two memoirs behind her and a number of other accomplishments like a career in sports broadcasting (she raked in a $300K+ salary as an announcer on Wide World of Sports). In other words, she already had a pool of life events to draw from.
But it was on that fifth swim that she crossed the shore of Key West.
Nyad's example resonates with the Millennial generation (read: me) because she quite literally achieved a dream defied by odds. Four failed attempts is enough statistical significance to draw a conclusion around the feasibility of a Cuba to Florida swim and yet despite that, Nyad felt so convinced that she had it in her.
Going into that fifth swim can be heroic. Or, as Ariel Levy's article highlighted, it an also be down right stupid, depending on how you look at it. From everyone else's point of view, Nyad looked foolish. From her own, Nyad believed in herself and in doing so exhibited every aspect of heroism we're taught to believe in as children. Had the outcome been otherwise (had she not made it out of the water after the fifth attempt) Nyad would likely have been painted in history as unwise and injudicious.
When I think about the goals I want to accomplish and the experiences I want to have, I find myself rubbing up against this tension. What exactly is realistic? And how much of that realism is a reflection of my willingness to submit myself to conventional wisdom?
In an era where we see 21-year-olds develop companies at an $800M valuation, 55-year-olds in the Olympics, and athletes swim over a hundred miles through sharks, jellyfish, and a crowd full of doubt, one has to ask themselves: Am I betting on myself enough? Or am I giving in on the fourth swim?