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.




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