Swimming With Sharks

Not too long ago, I was sitting with a couple of my best friends talking about people in our lives whom we admired and who have made a difference. Family members and close relatives were discussed, as were others unknown to us personally. We talked about John F. Kennedy, Norman Schwarzkopf, and Nelson Mandela. Well, after reading a bit about her, I have decided to add Diana Nyad to my list.

Nyad is the woman who, at age 64, swam in shark- and jellyfish-infested waters (without a shark cage) from Cuba to Key West last year.1 When asked if she was afraid of the sharks and jellyfish, she said she just swam past them—they were afraid of her.

If that isn’t impressive enough, you should know that she first started this quest (inside a shark cage) in 1978 at age 28 and was nearly 42 hours in before her team doctors demanded she end her journey. She tried again many years later, in 2010, 2011, and 2012, with each of those attempts curtailed by bad weather and/or jellyfish and Portuguese man-of-war stings. But she was determined not to quit, even though, given her age, no one would have blamed her for just retiring. After all, the greatest swimmers in the world had attempted this feat without success since 1950.

After hearing about her adventures, some have dismissed her as a thrill-seeker and narcissist. Why, they ask, was she willing to risk her life repeatedly to accomplish something that ultimately “amounts to a stunt”?2 But whether others can understand it or not, her quest to swim the 110 miles of treacherous open waters from Cuba to Florida gave her purpose. It was her raison d’être.

Why did Nyad attempt the impossible for a fifth time? She said she awoke one day wondering how much of her life was left and realized she could still fulfill her dream. In an interview,1 Nyad said it was not the 53 hours of swimming to attain the record that was significant to her; it was the previous 30 years of never abandoning her dreams—even when neurologists, endurance experts, and her own team said it couldn’t be done “at her age.” The team mantra for this final effort was “Find a Way!”

And in that we have a valuable lesson about perseverance. So much of everyday life is about showing up, working hard, and making sacrifices. In the struggle and the chaos, we often lose track of our goals and dreams. What Diana Nyad has shown us is that we should never stop believing that our dreams are achievable. She has also shown us, however, that they cannot be accomplished without persistence and hard work.

Without question, what she accomplished is remarkable for anyone. The fact that she was 64 when she made her final, successful attempt—an age at which most of us are expected to be thinking about retirement—is extraordinary. But we don’t have to attempt to match her feat to achieve a sense of satisfaction and purpose. Most of us will never actually swim with sharks, but we can take Nyad’s example as a metaphor for how we should live our lives—always striving, always believing, and always learning as much (if not more) from our failures as from our successes.

As any of the individuals mentioned earlier (Kennedy, Schwarz­kopf, Mandela) would surely attest, failure is a vital part of success that makes accomplishments so satisfying. Every day is epic! What matters is taking what we have to work with and making the most of it.

One of my favorite quotes by Teddy Roosevelt is:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.3

If there is anything to be said about the PA and NP professions, it is that we are resilient! I’m not suggesting we are swimming with sharks—but I am suggesting we should be proud of our professions and remain resilient and always “Find a Way!” Please share your thoughts with me at [email protected]


1. TED. Diana Nyad: Never, ever give up. www.ted.com/talks/diana_nyad_never_ever_give_up.html. Accessed January 10, 2014.

2. Diana Nyad’s life lesson for the rest of us [editorial]. Dallas Morning News. September 3, 2013. www.dallasnews.com/opinion/editorials/20130903-editorial-diana-nyads-life-lesson-for-the-rest-of-us.ece. Accessed January 10, 2014.

3. Roosevelt T. Excerpt from “Citizenship in a Republic” [speech]; April 23, 1910. www.theodore-roosevelt.com/trsorbonnespeech.html. Accessed January 13, 2014.