Key West, Florida is a long way from Ventura County in the same way that Cuba is a long way from Key West, Florida, but not really.
I speak literally -- and first -- of Diana Nyad who, as anyone with internet access and a pulse now knows, completed a 110-mile swim from Cuba to Florida that took her both 53 hours (that's two days and two nights) and 35 years. Since we are a country obsessed with first, let's get that out of the way first. By completing a swim many thought impossible, Diana Nyad became the first to swim the Florida Straits from Cuba to Florida without the protection of a shark cage (Australian Susie Moroney completed the crossing in a shark cage; the cage, towed by a boat, provides a mild draft making swimming somewhat easier). Plenty of swimmers have attempted the Cuba to Florida swim; all but Nyad have failed. Last year Australian Penny Palfrey swam 79 miles until strong currents felled her. I'm not exactly sure how a feat like that qualifies as failure, but record books are only interested in completed tasks.
When Nyad staggered ashore at Smathers Beach in Key West, her puffy-faced words were, "I have three messages. One is we should never, ever give up. Two is you never are too old to chase your dreams. Three is it looks like a solitary sport, but it takes a team." Nyad might have said something else. It's hard to know. Someone who has been immersed in salt water for 53 hours talks like they have been serving as Mike Tyson's personal punching bag for an equal amount of time. Nyad might have also asked for a massage and a half dozen cheeseburgers. I know I would have.
The moment she stepped ashore, the cyber-world exploded with congratulatory messages, including one from the President of the United States. "Congratulations to Diana Nyad. Never give up on your dreams," tweeted Barack Obama, no stranger to long haul efforts himself. "If there is an Aquaman then she is Aquawoman," proclaimed another tweeter. Not everyone was impressed. "Why spend so much valuable time... on the marginally interesting but ultimately selfish pseudo- adventure of Diana Nyad?" groused one Twitter tweeter.
But that's Twitter. Anyhow, we're not talking about messages of 140 characters. We're talking about character that actually matters (Footnote on character: some in the marathon swimming community are currently questioning whether Nyad did the entire swim. Based on her previous gutty record -- and the fair principle of presumed innocence until guilt is proven -- I am still holding Nyad up as an example).
Oh, right. Diana Nyad is 64. But so what?
Because this is a story not about firsts, it's about everything that comes before. Some might call them failures. Whatever you call them, this was Diana Nyad's fifth attempt at the Cuba to Florida crossing. She made her first attempt in 1978 when she was 28. Think about it. The Bee Gees, Disco, Saturday Night Fever. That was a long time ago, thank God. Nyad learned from her failures; something few are prone to do. She made adjustments -- in nutrition, in training, in the people she consulted -- and she came back again and again. And again and again. Four agains.
It is interesting what we see as failure and what we do with it. I would argue that failure, in the right hands, is excellence.
Which brings me to Jim McConica. If you are a swimmer (I am, but not a very good one) who lives in Southern California, chances are you know of Jim McConica. He is a bona fide swimming legend, and I am not just using the word bona fide because he is also my friend. Jim was once one of the best swimmers in the world. Competing at the University of Southern California, he was a six-time NCAA gold medalist. In 1971, he was a member of a world record setting 800-meter freestyle relay. He missed a berth on the 1972 U.S. Olympic team by one tenth of a second in the 200-meter freestyle. And that's where things get interesting.
You see, for a long time Jim viewed this near miss as the ultimate failure. "In the Trials I was swimming right next to the guy who made the team," Jim once told me. "That was one of my key disappointments in swimming. Probably my key disappointment." Jim likes the word key. He uses it for emphasis, and when he says something like this he looks at you like you're the last one standing on the planet. When he speaks to you like this, what he says is key.
The '72 Munich Olympics came and went. Jim finished college, returned to his Ventura home, gave up swimming and went about the business of life. But his Olympic near-miss festered. It's a long story, but the short version is Jim returned to swimming in his early 30s and swimming has not been the same since. In the pool, he has set countless Masters swimming records. He started doing long distance open water swims and turned that world on its head, too. I could go into all his open water accomplishments -- English Channel and Catalina Island crossings, a relay swim from Santa Barbara to San Diego and, last year, after high school senior Nick Vargas broke Jim's record for the swim from Anacapa Island to the mainland, Jim's snatching the record right back twenty-three days later (Oh right. He was sixty-one) -- but accomplishments aren't the point.
Among swimmers Jim is the stuff of legend not so much for the records he holds, but for the things he does to attain those records. How do I put this delicately? Jim has done some twisted stuff. He once did a pool workout that lasted 8 hours, swimming 32,000 meters in the process. Swimmers will understand. If you don't swim, just think pain. Lots of it, for a very, very long time. Someone once swore that he saw Jim break a Masters world record in practice while wearing long pants. If this is true, Jim probably forgot his suit. I know from personal experience that he lets almost nothing get in the way of training. Jim's work ethic has no weak link. Spartan. Day after day after day. Again and again and again.
Once, for roughly eight months, I trained with Jim, preparing for a long swim of my own. It was -- yes -- a very, very painful time. I have blotted out most of those memories. But I do remember, on days when I felt like quitting (and there were lots of them), Jim leaning toward me as the light went out of my eyes. "This is key," he would say, his eyes holding mine. "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is therefore not an act but a habit."
Of course in the moment I wanted to punch Jim repeatedly between the eyes. But Aristotle's words are so very true. I'm betting Diana Nyad knows them too. Others have phrased it differently. "Fall down seven times, get up eight," goes a Japanese proverb. Wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail."
Long distance swimming is a very strange business. Some believe the definitive word on marathon swimming was provided by Ted May. A steelworker by trade, May struck out alone across the English Channel in the summer of 1954, towing an inner tube loaded with rum, chicken, sugar, and biscuits. Foul weather forced him back to shore. A few days later, off he swam again. His body washed ashore a month later in Holland, a compass still strapped to his wrist.
These days, as Diana Nyad said, marathon swimming is very much a team effort. For her most recent attempt Nyad employed a team of 35, dispersed on five boats, among them a doctor, a navigator, and shark and jellyfish experts. But in the end marathon swimming is a solitary matter. As Nyad once put it, "Swimming is the ultimate form of sensory deprivation. You are left alone with your thoughts in a much more severe way." It can be a dark and difficult place. Stroke by stroke, you fall and you pick yourself up again.
Yes the efforts of Diana Nyad and my friend Jim McConica are largely selfish, but their examples are not.
Often, to excel is to simply persevere.