I had not thought about Diana Nyad for years, until a few weeks ago, when I woke to a morning full of Tweets and Facebook statuses, full of joyful for support for her long-dreamt of swim from Cuba to Florida. At 64, Nyad is on the leading edge of the wave of boomers, about to crash against their own old age on the shores of a health care system ill-prepared to meet them. And at 64, she is a marvel of endurance, fitness, confidence, and dreaming. Those two elements are not in opposition, but in tension.
In any case, her age was not what I thought of as I joined the happy twittering crowd, wishing I were one of the spectators wading into the waters off Key West, cheering and encouraging her with my presence. I have had some remotely similar experiences, the years I walked marathons to raise funds for charity: the random people who lined the streets and shouted their good wishes also pushed me forward with their good will.
The onlookers could not swim for her, but they could be present for her. And the electronic world was far, far from the hand-slapping monotony of endless miles of freestyle and jellyfish—but that energy, surely surged around her.
When the first newscasts began to broadcast happy headlines: She did it! I thought about how her whole generation has done it, too. They dreamt what they wanted to become, and they did: they wanted to be lawyers and doctors, surgeons, CEOS, political leaders, and more. They wanted to be wives, mothers, friends, sisters, and the multitude of other people life fashions women to become.
Like Nyad, so many were met along the way with commentaries about the absurdity of their dreams and their ambitions, the unlikely world in which they might come true. Her generation keeps fanning those dreams: the first woman president might yet emerge from its ranks.
Nyad herself said it best, when she told one interviewer, “You’re never too old to chase your dreams.” Or too crazy, or too young, too feminine, too other. My own failed attempts at childhood athleticism were met too often by the scornful comment: You swing like a girl (or run, hit, jump or field). I was too young to reply with the obvious, “Well, I AM a girl.” Instead, I stopped those ambitions cold, became a fan, and not a participant. A few years ago, I could not resist giving my own athletic daughter a shirt that said, “You think I run like a girl? Catch me if you can.”
In the midst of my Nyad happiness, I remembered a poem that I wrote years ago, when I might still have been seen as a girl. I was 18, a college freshman, and not keen on some writing assignment or other. I persuaded the professor to let me write a long poem instead, and from it came something called “Sixty-four Caprices for a Long-Distance Swimmer.” In subsequent years, the poem meandered its way through many publications and anthologies, including one that was marketed as the only poetry anthology ever reviewed by Sports Illustrated. My own favorite version appears in a text book, at home between Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman.
It has been years since I looked at the poem, but the number ‘64’ struck me, and I googled the poem, hoping to find an electronic version that would spare my arthritic knees a journey upstairs to my book collection.
It appeared! Apparently, a Yale professor has used it in anthropology course. I emailed him, and he replied that he finds the poem a way to illustrate for his students the ways poetry can encapsulate their experience of sports and athleticism. I was thrilled to find the poem—Yale! I thought, as close as I’ll ever get.
Still, I was not eager to read the poem. That 18 year old poet would hardly recognize herself at 51. Where she observed and daydreamed and dared-out-loud, her older self has been too often cowed by the vicissitudes of life. Where nothing could hold her young self down, too many things cow the old one. That 18-year old, who balked at writing papers, wound up with a degree in mathematics and a career in writing. At the time, many people questioned the reality of the math degree, thinking I was crazy to do something so hard, so burdensome, so real. I never doubted that I could—and once I did, I never looked back.
So I skimmed the poem, and found pieces to commend it. Mostly, I like that the young woman I was admired the older women who swam with me in the college pool. I did not fear them—although I often averted my eyes. More often, I was curious to see where I was likely headed: baby fat, sagging breasts, wrinkles everywhere. Now that I am older, I am grateful that, despite all appearances, my body remains in working order. It gets me where I’m going, and then some:
5. Seventy-year old women stand naked in the locker room. Some use walkers, others have artificial hips, scarred legs and missing breasts; still, they love this morning swim with the distant sun rising.
6. In these women, I witness how I too will age. I avert my eyes, move to far lanes and other shadows.
7. I swim past men to prove my strength–after years of ”throwing like a girl”; I lap them twice.
63. I’ve been here before and am anxious to leave. I am young enough to have learned that all things are composed of change.
64. I shed water’s silk cocoon for the certain embrace of air; my body emerges from the pool, form from cut crystal.
To honor Diana Nyad, that afternoon, I went back to the gym, which I have avoided in the wake of chronic pain and discomfort. I spit in my googles as I did when I was a teenager on a swim team, because that prevents them fogging. I stuffed into my suit. I walked into that water, and I swam as fast as I ever did. Somethings the body never forgets, and some dreams stay with us, always. Go, Diana, go! Thanks for taking us along.
key words: Diana Nyad, extreme sports, athleticism, dreaming