It all started four years ago when she turned sixty and her mother died. As often happens with decade birthdays, she asked herself, “Who have I become? How have I spent my valuable time? What am I going to do with the rest of my life? How many countless hours have I lost in negative thoughts?”
The solution was to chase what she called “an elevated dream, an extreme dream, something that would require utter conviction and unwavering passion, something that would make me to be my best self in every aspect of my life, every minute of every day.” (TED Talk, October 2011).
Diana Nyad reconnected with a lingering dream from thirty years ago. In the 1970’s, Nyad was the greatest long-distance swimmer on earth. Her world records, such as circling Manhattan Island and crossing the 102.5 miles between the Bahamas and Florida, led to many accolades such as the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame. Some of those records are still unbroken.
In 1978 Nyad attempted to swim the 100-plus miles from Cuba to Florida but failed. She subsequently stopped swimming for thirty-one years. Nyad always kept in shape over those years but did not take a single stroke. She became a prominent sports broadcaster, working for National Public Radio, ABC’s Wide World of Sports, Fox Sports, and The New York Times. Nyad owns a fitness business, has written three books, and has a reputation as a passionate, compelling, and entertaining public speaker.
After turning sixty, Diana Nyad acknowledged the deep longing in her heart to try again. She started training and discovered that she was able to make it through those six, ten, fourteen, eighteen, and twenty-four hour swims. Diana made three attempts in 2011 and 2012 but was thwarted by Box Jellyfish stings, powerful Gulf Stream currents, life-threatening lighting strikes, wind, storms, and sharks circling underneath her. Each time she’d swim as long as she was physically able but never made it the entire distance.
This time Diana Nyad slipped into the water from the seawall in Hemingway Marina in Havana, Cuba, on Saturday, August 30. After 110 miles and fifty-three hours of non-stop swimming, she walked out of the water around 2 p.m. on Labor Day, the first person to ever swim from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage. I’d call her the toughest athlete in the world.
Nyad arrived in remarkably good shape despite swallowing so much seawater that she developed mouth sores and vomited continuously the entire time. On the beach she said to the gathered crowd, “I have three messages. One is, we should never, ever give up. Two is, you’re never too old to chase your dream. Three is, it looks like a solitary sport, but it is a team.”
Unpacking those three messages unlocks the secret to our best self and a life of utter conviction and unwavering passion.
- Never, ever give up.
Many people give up after their first failure. Humiliated, depressed, and afraid, we simply don’t try anymore and move on to something else. The truth of human life is that nothing significant comes easily. Nothing great comes without failure, disappointment, and even suffering. In fact, the greatest predictor of success is past failure, the growth that comes from learning from our mistakes and the determination to keep on.
On CBS This Morning on Tuesday, September 3, Diana Nyad said that her mantra through the swim was “Find a way.” Referring to those long hours in the water she said, “It doesn’t matter … what you come up against because none of it’s going to be pleasant. You’re hardly ever out there going, ‘Oh, my God, isn’t it a beautiful moon tonight?’ The crew is feeling that. But you’re kind of suffering through the whole thing. So my thought was, ‘Everything you come up against, say – and this is why people are relating to my story – all of us suffer heartache. All of us suffer difficulties in our lives.’ And if you say to yourself, ‘Find a way,’ you’ll make it through.”
- You’re never too old to chase your dream.
Nyad’s accomplishment flies in the face of all those who write off senior citizens as unable to fulfill great dreams and change the world.
This spring the Board of Ordained Ministry of the Texas Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church released on the conference website “Proposed Minimum Standards for Entering Candidates” for ministry. According to the proposal, candidates over the age of forty-five were not encouraged to pursue ordination as deacons and elders.
The Board of Ordained Ministry had planned to seek feedback before a final decision in October. The proposal elicited passionate debate around the United Methodist connection this summer, with some citing blatant age discrimination and others noting the need for younger leadership in the church. The proposal was withdrawn on August 14, with the committee citing significant negative response from around the United Methodist connection and admitting “much unintended pain caused for some clergy by the proposal.” The mandatory retirement age for United Methodist clergy is seventy-two.
I have had the privilege of serving with clergy colleagues who entered seminary in their fifties and have been stellar pastors whose gifts and life experiences have enriched local congregations, conference agencies, and their colleagues. When we make assumptions about the athletic, intellectual, and leadership ability of older people, we ignore the added value of wisdom, experience, and maturity. Can you imagine anyone forbidding Diana Nyad from following her dreams because she is “only” sixty-four years old?
- It looks like a solitary sport, but it is a team.
No one becomes great on their own. We all stand on the shoulders of parents, mentors, spiritual guides, teachers, and friends. Diana Nyad’s thirty-five member Xtreme Team of high-tech experts, consisting of a jellyfish expert, shark divers, nutritionists, physicians, and navigators, was key to her success. “The mental concentration of fifty-three hours of nonstop swimming is something to behold and respect. The physical duress is something to behold as well, but never, ever, ever, could I do this without this team here,” Nyad told a news conference.
I am convinced that the compelling nature of dreams sets us apart from any other creature on this earth. Dreams come true because of three decisions we make as individuals or organizations, including the church.
The first decision is to name the dream. That’s often the hardest step. Name the dream to yourself and others because that’s how we hold ourselves accountable. What dreams do you hold in your heart but have never shared with another person? Is it time to announce those to yourself, others, and God and then go for it?
The second decision is to wait and watch. Some dreams take a lifetime of waiting before they become reality. Waiting, of course, includes suffering, disappointment, disillusionment, and even despair. Diana Nyad waited thirty years and failed four times in the process. She even let go of the dream for thirty years, but it never went away. Once the dream resurfaced, Diana waited, watched, trusted, and prepared for the right moment.
The third decision is to find a way to make the dream come true once the time is right. Finding a way engages every bit of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual courage we have in order to persist and endure. In Nyad’s own words, she endured “hell on earth” but was able to dig deep and find a way. Her accomplishment has inspired millions of people around the globe, especially those who think they are too old, too sick, too poor, or too worn out for dreams. Grit, determination, and God accompany every dream.
Do you know that you and I have a God who also dreams, a God who has a vision of human beings who will one day act like the creatures that God has made in God’s image? Do you know that God’s dream is of humans who will turn swords into plowshares, turn the other cheek, and go the second mile? Do you know that God waited patiently for many generations to bring us back to God, giving us the law, then judges, then kings, then prophets?
Do you know that one day in the fullness of time God found a way by sending God’s own son Jesus into the world to show us that God is love? Do you know how much God suffered when Jesus was reviled, persecuted and rejected by his own? Do you know that by offering up his life on a cross, Jesus opened the door to new life for us to be reconciled to him, each other, and our world?
Do you know that God smiles when each one of us has an extreme dream, something that will require utter conviction, unwavering passion, and finding a way; something that will mold us into our best self and change the world? What’s your wildest dream? How will you live while you wait? How will you find a way?