It was fifth time lucky for Diana Nyad, pictured. The 64-year-old achieved a life-long ambition this week when she became the first person to swim the 110 miles from Cuba to Florida without the aid of a shark cage.
The challenges of her 53-hour marathon included dehydration, sunburn and bruising from the silicone face mask she wore as protection against the dastardly jellyfish which put paid to two previous attempts.
Nyad’s achievement has been variously described as “historic”, “marvellous” and “inspiring”. Those who watched her swim on TV from the comfort of their sofas might also add “baffling” to that list, and none of these adjectives quite explains what we find so impressive about such feats of derring-do.
If you’re out to prove something to yourself about something or other, there have never been so many ways to do it. The standard marathon has been superseded by “extreme” marathons involving high altitudes and temperatures exceeding 35C. Or there are charity bungee jumps, like the one in which a Staffordshire pub landlord broke his ankle last week. Meanwhile, mountain rescue teams all over the UK are reporting an increase in call-outs, as more ordinary folk remember to leave their comfort zone, but forget to bring a map.
We do Nyad a disservice, however, if we confuse her achievement with this increasingly humdrum willingness to risk life and limb. The international media may have only started paying attention in the past 53 hours, but it’s in the three decades previous that Nyad exhibited her defining quality – a dedication that’s the very opposite of reckless.
She made her first attempt at the swim in 1978 aged 28 and has been trying again, failing again and failing better ever since. Nyad has been keen to point out that while ‘The Old Woman and The Sea' might seem like the ultimate story of individual struggle, it’s always involved other people too. There are the over-60s she set out to inspire by proving “it’s never too late to start your dreams” and the team of 35 she collected along the way, individuals who have been as committed to achieving her goal as she was.
The fact that this goal was “pointless” is sort of the point. Swimming from Cuba to Florida is not the kind of achievement most people include in their Things To Do Before You Turn 64 bucket list. It won’t help pay off the mortgage or get a promotion at work or even improve family life and that’s what makes it so inspiring. Diana Nyad’s single-minded dedication reminds us of how many other exciting things beyond the narrow definitions of success might be done in a lifetime. You just wake up one morning and decide you’re going to do it. And then, some 30 years later, eventually you do.