The jaws of defeat

Endurance swimmer Diana Nyad was forced today to end her fourth attempt to swim unassisted (no shark cage) from Cuba to Florida, which she began on August 18. This journey of just over 100 miles was expected to take her more than 60 hours.

Diana Nyad’s last position this morning, from her website.

After some 41 hours in the water, she was finally thwarted by the ocean, the weather, and her own body. A lightning storm that wouldn’t let up pushed her off course and imperiled her entire crew, and the jellyfish that have been her nemeses on the last two tries once again struck her. The 63-year-old athlete is receiving medical care for severe sunburn, a pulled bicep muscle, and jellyfish stings. It is likely that this will be her last attempt to make this arduous crossing that, remarkably, has been officially completed by only one other person, a woman who swam at least part of the way inside a 28-by-8-foot shark cage in 1997. (details)

Few people in the world are better qualified to make this attempt than Nyad. According to her website, “Back in the 1970s, Diana Nyad was the greatest long-distance swimmer in the world. Her world records, such as circling Manhattan Island and crossing the 102.5 miles between the Bahamas and Florida, have led to inductions to many Halls of Fame, such as the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame.”

Swimming from Havana to the Florida Keys has been something of an obsession for Nyad for decades. Her first try at crossing the Florida Straits was with a shark cage in 1978, but she was unsuccessful. She made her first attempt at an unassisted crossing on August 7, 2011. After swimming for 29 hours, she was turned back by ocean currents and winds pushing her off course, shoulder pain, and jellyfish stings that triggered her asthma. She tried again in September 2011 and was again foiled by jellyfish stings after 40 hours in the water.

The day before she started this fourth try, she said “I’m feeling tremendous inner pressure that this has got to be it, this has got to be the last time.” (source) “There’s a reason no-one’s ever done it, but I’m prepared. … I may suffer some, but I’m prepared for that, too.” (source) And suffer she did on every try: from sunburn, asthma, swelling of her lips and tongue, hypothermia, circling sharks, exhaustion, muscle and joint pain, and of course, jellyfish.

Diana Nyad, shortly after she was pulled from the water to end her fourth and final attempt to swim from Cuba to Florida. (Image from

Her motivation for making this epic quest is not only for her own glory.

“When I walk up on that shore in Florida, I want millions of those AARP sisters and brothers to look at me and say, ‘I’m going to go write that novel I thought it was too late to do. I’m going to go work in Africa on that farm that those people need help at. I’m going to adopt a child. It’s not too late, I can still live my dreams.'”


I have to admire this woman and her dedication to what some (including, ahem, me) might say is a foolish, egotistical, dangerous, and wastefully expensive attempt to do something that doesn’t even need to be done by anyone, ever. I admire that she was and is willing to accept a tremendous amount of physical hardship and risk to pursue something she feels is worthwhile. She is without question strong, brave and dedicated, and cannot be personally faulted for being unable to complete the crossing. The Straits seemed intent upon slamming the door in her face, as they have done to nearly every single swimmer who has ever headed north from Havana trying to reach the Keys.

Diana Nyad inspires me to dream what she calls the Xtreme Dream. She will never be forgotten for what she has attempted to do. Even older women can make history when they dare to dream big, and that is the victory that Nyad has snatched from the jaws of defeat.

Update, 2 September 2013: “She freaking made it



46 thoughts on “The jaws of defeat

  1. I just saw her story yesterday for the first time — what spirit! I personally don’t understand being compelled to agonize for any period of time, but I can definitely appreciate her desire to accomplish a goal. On behalf of dreamers and achievers everywhere, I wish her a speedy recovery!

  2. The idea of this is amazing. She’s encouraging people to dream the impossible dream and go after it. There’s no embarrassment in failure, there’s only joy in having at least tried it. Bravo Nyad. Anything is possible and at least you can say you fought hard to make it happen.

  3. Our foolishness in life is sometimes what makes life worth living. We could all do the same things and never take chances or live our dreams – or do dangerous and crazy things – but wouldn’t that be a bit boring? Safe, yes. But awfully boring.

    • Making history nearly always involves taking incredible risks, but then the achievement becomes a possible, credible, reachable dream for future adventurers. Somebody has to be the first to do it.

  4. I think one of the beautiful morals of this story is that achievement does not necessarily have to mean completing one’s original goal so much as the effort and the dreaming in and of itself. I often am grieved that we live in a society that has such rigid definitions of success and accomplishment. Although she did not reach her goal, who could see her as a failure? The success was in the attempt! And in the vision! And in the inspiration she has verbalized – that it’s never too late to try. I am sure she will inspire the young and the old alike. That is the measure of true success.

  5. I understand Nyad’s desire to be inspiring by doing something she does well in a (to me) pointlessly risky situation. I’m just not inspired by it. People also stupidly try and risk climbing Everest without oxygen, to prove that a few people in very lucky circumstances might survive that.

    The people that inspire me are those who perform low-paying service work as caregivers, in complete anonymity, because they faithfully believe that injured, disabled, sick and old people should be cared for and assisted. There are thousands of these people in every state. They have no union, usually make minimum wage, and often get no health insurance or retirement benefits. At some point in her life, even Diana Nyad is likely to need one, if she hasn’t used their services already.

    • I see your point, on the other hand I don’t see why we can’t admire the people you are referencing as well as women like Nyad. There is such a spectrum of things that make people inspirational…we need all sorts – the daily laborers who take care of those in need and the big risk-takers who push the very boundaries off what we believe we are capable of as humans beings, and ever so many other types of people who do truly amazing things.

      • We can admire them, all of them, and certainly I do. I just wasn’t writing this particular post about them. πŸ˜‰ This world absolutely does need people in every category and level of achievement.

  6. Cheers, Diana!1 You had a good run , now you need to teach some up & coming distance swimmers some of your tricks πŸ™‚

  7. At 63-years-old, I see it as a triumph just attempting such a tremendous feat. I’ve been following her career since the ’70s, and she was always an inspiration to push on. When I see your wonderful photo, I don’t see defeat. I see a blinding spirit overtaken by the elements, above and beyond her control. If success were measured by will, she touched the shore in Key West a long time ago. Thanks for highlighting her plight.

  8. Hope Diana recovers soon and may she chalk this up as a lifetime experience. So she swam in her younger years and probably quite good too.

    There is a serious hard reality that with each successive decade in life, the physical pursuit in athletics become different, harder at 63 yrs. vs. 33 yrs. We have to face that reality. I don’t say this to discourage people but when we tie our personal fulfillment and achievement primarily to a sport that we did well 20 yrs. ago vs. now, it is not necessarily the best for the person in terms of their mental health. So as long as she knows she is good at something else/finds her passion (besides swimming) with equal vigor to enjoy/strive for next 10-20 yrs.

    I’m saying this as a cyclist with a partner who has cycled across North America 3 times in past 15 yrs. He is now 69 and will be going 3,000 kms. southwest from Canada to U.S. –solo. He knows his limits now…and has a bail out plan if there’s a winter storm in mountains, etc.

  9. Nyad wrote in the Huffington Post today:

    It’s not in my nature to admit that no matter how much will you summon, no matter how much courage you express, no matter how much intelligent and complex planning you do, no matter the excruciating long hours of training, no matter the dedicated and expert individuals you choose to help you, sometimes you just don’t arrive at your destination. And somehow you still have to find the pride and the joy in your journey.

    That’s the road I’m walking today. Feeling that pride, that joy….

    I didn’t make it all the way. But I surely did seize the time. I couldn’t have done any of it a fingernail better. …

    Seize your days. All of them. Be bold. Don’t give in to fear. To paraphrase my favorite quote, by Mary Oliver: “So, what are you going to do with this one, wild and precious life of yours?”

    Read the whole article at

  10. Her “defeat” brings to mind Rilke’s poem “The Man Watching,” a couple lines specifically:
    “When we win it’s with small things, and the winning itself makes us small.”
    “This is how he grows: by being beaten, decisively,
    by constantly greater beings.”

    It’s better to fail at something bigger than win at something smaller.

    • It was not the distance that defeated her, it was primarily the jellyfish stings. If there were no jellyfish in the Straits, she may well have already completed this swim, possibly more than once. πŸ˜‰

  11. I was scrolling down to express my worry that Nyad was okay, and not feeling like a failure because she had to stop – she’s still an inspiration, as evidenced by all these comments. Then I saw what she wrote on HuffPost and I feel better.

    ps congrats on FP!

  12. Bravo Ms. Nyad! Hallelujah anyway! Another woman I am reminded of is my 87 year old Jazz Dance Teacher, Othella Dallas, who continues to teach Katherine Dunham dance in her studio in Basel, Switzerland. In spite of it all!

  13. Great post. I think people who attempt feats that, as you say, may not necessarily need to be done, ever, are creating awareness. They may raise money for a charity, or they may be doing it as a personal inner accomplishment. Sometimes we need to stretch ourselves to show ourselves what we are capable of. I applaud her and your post.
    Congrats on the FP!

    • I think that anytime someone does what has never been done before, it advances the entire human race, actually. Nobody believed a human being could run a mile in less than 4 minutes until somebody did it, for example, and now people routinely do it. People like Nyad help expand the definition of what is “humanly possible.”

  14. This is a fantastic story – I’m sure a lot of people made her feel uncomfortable about this type of achievement; doubted her, whether out of jealousy or not. Its a fantastic achievement and inspiring for those who possess or feel they may possess this type of creative adventure-ness.

  15. Pingback: Not so quiet accomplishments made sour « Righter's Kramp

  16. Pingback: The jaws of defeat « Live, Laugh, Love

  17. Pingback: The jaws of defeat | The Title Borrower

We love comments! :-)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s