Just keep swimming

When I was in school we used to have these comprehension tests, where you’d read a piece of writing and then do some questions on it, to show that you’d understood what you’d read. One of the ones I remember was about this woman swimming the English Channel. I remember reading it and it capturing my imagination- the grueling conditions and physical effort needed. I couldn’t fathom that someone could or would swim so far.

I’ve never been a strong swimmer. I learned late, at about ten years old, and I was never the best. Swimming from England to France seemed crazy.

As I got older swimming the channel became one of those impressive yet ultimately pointless endeavors some people had completed- like climbing Everest. Sure, it was a way of showing the world you were tough, but there was no real reason to do it. Everest had been conquered years before and there are easier ways of getting to France.

I get that some people do it to raise money for charity, like David Walliams did for Sport Relief a while back.

Walliams at the end of his swim. The white stuff is to keep you warm in the water.
Walliams at the end of his swim. The white stuff is to keep you warm in the water.

For someone who had a brief panic 20 feet out in Sri Lanka because the current was stronger than they’d expected, swimming the channel seems a ridiculous and heroic thing to do.

Or it did. Because earlier this week someone came along and blew Walliams et al out of the water (unintentional pun).

I’m talking about Diana Nyad, an American long distance swimmer who at the age of 64 finally completed her mission to swim from Cuba to Florida.

Nyad emerging from the water.
Nyad emerging from the water.

That’s a distance of 110 miles. Nyad had previously attempted to make the trip four times, but had been forced to call it short each time. Her initial attempt was way back in 1978 when she was 29, and she’d tried again, twice in 2011 and once last year.

In the interim someone actually achieved it, with Aussie Susan Maroney completing it back in 1997. Maroney had used a shark cage, which makes the swim easier, and she managed the journey in 25 hours, whereas Nyad took 53, but Nyad didn’t have a shark cage.

Oh, yeah, because in the Florida Straits there are sharks. Lots of sharks.

Oh, and jellyfish, which is why Nyad’s third and fourth attempts were abandoned.

It’s clear that Nyad is something of a badass, and generous too, taking time to thank her 35 person support crew and stating “it looks like a solitary sport but it is a team”, which is pretty magnanimous considering she was the one in the drink for the whole thing, and could have just talked about how hard it had been.

Nyad in action.
Nyad in action.

Nyad’s swim is really impressive and a rather inspiring tale of dedication and commitment to achieving a goal. It takes a special kind of madness I think to attempt something like this, and especially to try again after so many set backs. Nyad had stated before the swim that whatever happened this was to be her last attempt, but I can’t help wondering if that would be true. Nyad’s ambition to do it seems to have been so great that I can imagine her keeping on.

Trying to do finish something you started 35 years ago is proof that it’s been eating at you, and maybe I’ve seen too many movies, but I just imagine her refusing to give up, becoming obsessed with getting it done. The swim being her white whale or whatever.

I’ve always wanted to do something like this, or at least run a marathon. I spend hours daydreaming about taking part in some crazy scheme or daring exploit, but I don’t think I have the guts or admirable lunacy to actually have a proper go. I guess it takes a certain kind of person to do it, and on the evidence so far, I’m just not the type.

So, Diana Nyad, I applaud you as you take your place in the ranks of those marvelously daft heroes.

More info.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

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