Fifty-three hours of blue-water swimming … 110 miles from Cuba to Florida … … five tries over three decades.
It was just about 30 years ago that I was on a first-name basis with the living legend who is Diana Nyad.
Diana Nyad, back in the day
I had just been named chief communications officer for IBM’s newly launched software business unit, and I was pulling together the unit’s first conference for 700-some managers. I hired Diana to be our motivational speaker.
It was 1985 and Diana Nyad, then in her mid-thirties, had become a national celebrity for her 28-mile swim around Manhattan in less than eight hours.
She had already made her first attempt at the Cuba-Florida run in 1978. When that effort failed, she followed a year later with a successful 102-mile swim from the Bahamas to Florida in 27 hours.
I no longer recall exactly what she said at our 1985 conference, but I do vividly remember two things about her as she sat beside me in the front row waiting to give her talk:
- Her beautiful legs as sculpted as a Greek statue from untold hours of flutter kicks in pools and oceans
- And, unseen by the audience, her pre-speech jitters
It was an odd thing to observe how someone as courageous as Diana Nyad – someone accustomed to being on the professional speaker circuit all those years -- could be so nervous about getting up on stage.
After all, her very name summons up images of strong females of antiquity.
Diana, for example, was the name of the Roman goddess of the hunt.
And Nyad was explained in a Newsweek story:
When she was around six years old, her stepfather [Aristotle Nyad] showed her the word naiad (the original spelling of the family name) in a dictionary. The time, she stated, was "just at the juncture when I was developing an ego, the id of self-definition. The first meaning of naiad: 'from Greek mythology, the nymphs that swam the lakes, fountains, rivers and seas to protect them for the gods. The second meaning: 'girl or woman champion swimmer.' Aris winked at me, and we both understood that this was my destiny."
I guess we have to call to mind Jerry Seinfeld’s unforgettable stand-up routine about the stress of public speaking:
“According to most studies, people's number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
During the years since Diana Nyad spoke to our IBM conference, she went on to be a respected media reporter and commentator.
And last month she made her career dream come true when she shuffled onto the shore of Key West.
In overcoming four Cuba-to-Florida setbacks and in dealing with her fear of public speaking, Diana Nyad surely followed her own mantra:
''All of us suffer heartaches and difficulties in our lives. If you say to yourself, 'find a way,' you’ll make it through.''
In my next blog: But Who's Counting?