You Go to Know When to Fold ’Em: Diana Nyad’s Failed Cuba-Florida Swim

Diana Nyad’s decision today (Tuesday) to pull the plug on her fourth attempt in nearly 35 years to swim across the Straits of Florida really wasn’t much of a choice. Her face stung by jellyfish, her body shivering from near-hypothermia, with sharks circling and lightning storms churning the seas, Nyad had only three options: swim, sink or get out of the water.

She made the right call.

Our culture seems to celebrate only success, and when so much is at stake – sponsorships, dedicated efforts by family and support crews, expenses and self-esteem – it’s not surprising that so many epic adventures come to involuntary, tragic endings rather than humbling but rational decisions to get out while the getting is good.

In Nyad’s case, this had been her third attempt since last summer to become the first person to cross the Florida Straits without a shark cage. She also bailed out of a Cuba-to-Florida swim with a cage in 1978.

Maybe it’s me, but I don’t quite embrace the glory in becoming the first to accomplish the swim without a shark cage. In my view, Australian Susie Maroney will still be regarded as the real pioneer as the first to swim the Straits in 1997, even though she used a shark cage.

Most of us could identify Edmund Hillary as the first man to climb Mount Everest in 1953, but few know, much less care, that 25 years later Reinhold Messner became the first to reached the highest point on Earth without the use of supplemental oxygen.

What’s next: climbing (or swimming) while blindfolded? Wearing a crown of thorns or hair shirt? Lugging a giant rock? At some point this “first-ever” claim degenerates into a Guinness Book of World Records sideshow akin to growing the longest fingernails or pogo-sticking across the Alps.

As one who has embarked on a fair share of madcap pursuits over the years – running 50 miles on my 50th birthday, organizing a “Summit New England” expedition in which a group of friends and I tagged the high points of all six New England states in a round-the-clock marathon; and who has spent every New Year’s Day in the past 41 years interspersing a 10-mile run with an icy plunge into Fishers Island Sound, among numerous other nutty exploits – I’m more inclined to celebrate than condemn the spirit of adventure.

But I like to think I’ve also had sense enough to call it quits when a goal moves out of reach.

I’m thinking of my attempt a few years ago to ascend Aconcagua on the Chilean-Argentine border, at 22,841 feet the highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere. After holing up for days in a blizzard at 19,000 feet, our team finally had a shot at the summit, but I had run out of gas.

While spending nearly an hour fumbling in a futile effort to don boots and assemble gear, I realized I was in no shape to continue higher in my oxygen-starved, energy depleted state and stayed behind while others ventured upward. My goal was to come home safely, with or without tagging the top, not to get to the summit at all costs.

For every Edmund Hillary there is a George Mallory, whose frozen remains still lie below Everest’s summit more than 80 years after his expedition met a tragic end.

Loyal readers may recall my having referenced this book in the past, but it still resonates: Geoff Powter’s “Strange and Dangerous Dreams: The Fine Line Between Adventure and Madness.”

Powter, a practicing clinical psychologist, uses the tales of 11 troubled adventurers, including Polar explorer Robert Scott and Meriwether Lewis of Lewis and Clark fame, to illustrate the difficulty of differentiating passionate pursuits from life-threatening obsessions.

By dint of Nyad’s decision to end her swim today after more than 41 years in the water, Nyad, who turns 63 on Wednesday, can be regarded as a passionate adventurer rather than a self-destructive madwoman.

She already has demonstrated her enormous capacities, having swum from Bimini to Florida in 1979, and by breaking a world record in 1975 in circling Manhattan in seven hours and 57 minutes.

Way to go, Diana. Live to swim another day.

 

 

 

Reader Comments

MORE BLOGS

Vacations From Hell: At Least They’re Memorable

Just between us, don’t you hate it when friends or coworkers post photos on Facebook of awesome journeys to exotic destinations – or if they’re really old-school, send postcards depicting glorious sunsets, sparkling lakes,...

In Stride With Women Runners: Amby Burfoot Celebrates Their History In A New Book

Back in the Dark Ages when I was growing up, one of the worst insults an adolescent male could hurl at one of his buddies was, "You run like a girl!"

Danger, Swan Attack! Quick, Wring Its Neck!

It’s difficult to imagine a more outrageous example of idiotic government overreaction than this week’s incident involving a mute swan on Five Mile Pond in Danielson, which would almost be laughable if the outcome weren’t so...

The Parable Of The Rope: An Icy Mountain Drama In New Hampshire's Carter Notch

With a blustery breeze making the 8-degree temperature feel as if were a few notches below zero, our group didn’t intend to dawdle while scrambling back to civilization. The mountain hut where we spent the night had been so frigid my boots...

Over The Falls! A Salmon River Adventure

You know that feeling when you’re about to attempt something adventurous that at first seemed it would be fun, but then doubts about your safety and sanity crept in? Oh no! Too late!

There's No Such Thing As Too Much Garlic

A few years ago, while visiting relatives in Canada, I noticed a giant basket of produce in a corner of the kitchen. "Wow! Where’d you get all that garlic?" I asked.

Plenty Of Mudslinging On The Trail

Well, we’ve made it through another winter, though for snow and ice fans it was pretty pitiful – but we’re not quite out of the woods when it comes to challenging hiking conditions.

Hey, Shaddup Out There! At Least Can You Tone Down All That Screeching, Snorting, Squawking, Croaking, Buzzing And Howling?

OK, I get it. It’s mating season, when all the furry, feathered and slimy critters are desperate for a little action, using the only pickup technique they know: make loud noises.

'Life Is Full of Roadblocks, But You Have to Drive Through Them' – Dirk Vlieks' Inspiring Recovery

After having swum the 1.2-mile leg of Hawaii’s Rohto Half-Ironman triathlon Dirk Vlieks of Mystic was 22 miles into the 56-mile bike section, already thinking ahead to the 13.1-mile run to the finish line, when he began to feel...

My Acute Case of OCWD (Obsessive Compulsive Wood Disorder)

You’d think that those of us who heat with wood can relax this time of year when we no longer must make 10 trips a day to the woodshed, stumble out of bed at 3 a.m. to stoke the stove, continuously shovel ashes and forage the forest for...

The Eagles Have Landed Again On The Connecticut River – And A Surprise Encounter While Kayaking Among Ice Floes

For viewing shore birds, marine mammals and a veritable Noah’s ark of critters that live near the water, nothing beats a kayak. Over the years I’ve paddled among seals, loons, beavers, sharks, sea turtles, otters, muskrats, snakes,...

Maple Syrup Magic: A Sweet Reminder Of Impending Spring

Skunk cabbage and crocuses poking through the snow; almost two extra hours of daylight, a robin’s chirp; the arrival of pitchers and catchers at baseball training camps – unmistakable signs of the approaching season abound, but as far...

Embrace The Cold! It’s Fun (Right)

Just as Dylan famously sang so long ago, "You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows," I don’t need a thermometer to know the temperature – or at least what to wear when I venture outside for...