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Persistence, Sacrifice, and Small Changes: Lessons from Diana Nyad’s Epic Swim

Hey Team,

Happy Sunday!  I must admit, it’s pretty easy to get motivated to train right now – the sun is out, the weather is warm…it’s lighter in the morning making that alarm clock easier to answer and at night it’s well past 6pm when the sun goes down which makes it so easier to head in after work than in the dark and freezing cold of winter when the pull of a warm fire is just so REAL!

I had a blog written for this week about the challenge nearly being over – and how if we can all find a way to get through just ONE (Healthy Habits) or TWO (Highway to Hell) more weeks we’re going to be at the end and smiling in the mirror at our dedication and achievement!  But then last night I sat down and watched a new movie on NetFlix (NYAD) and all of those words seemed a little underwhelming!

So – what’s it all about??

The movie (‘NYAD’) is about a swimmer – 64-year old Diana Nyad – who becomes the first person to solo swim from Cuba to Key West (over 110 miles).  She completes the crossing on her 5th attempt, making adjustments to her plan in each attempt to increase her probability of success.  Jumping up and doing some background reading this morning there is a bit of a background of controversy to her achievement with there being more than a little ‘doubt’ in the swimming community as to the legitimacy of her crossing and whether it was truly ‘solo’…but for right now I’m going to say it was a pretty inspirational movie and I like the quote from the director of the movie (Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi) who said “We don’t say, ‘It’s based on a true story,’ we don’t say, ‘It is a true story’—but it is a true story. It’s about this idea of truth.” 

So – just to be quick – what IS the story?  As I said it is a ‘biopic’ of marathon swimmer Diana Nyad.  She completed a series of marathon swims that brought her national attention during her 20’s – Manhattan Island, English channel, Gulf of Naples…nothing seemed beyond her.  Then at age 28 she attempted to swim from Cuba to Key West – a distance of 110 miles – but was unsuccessful.  On her 30th birthday (August 21–22, 1979), she set a world record for distance swimming (both men and women) over open water by swimming 102 miles (164 km) from North Bimini Island, Bahamas, to Juno Beach, Florida – and then promptly retired from swimming…she didn’t swim a stroke for almost 30-years!

This is kind of where the movie picks up the story (though there are multiple flashbacks to the abuse she suffered as a teenage girl) as Nyad – now 60-years old – decides to re-enter the water with a singular goal – Completing the crossing from Cuba to Key West.  It is far from a fairy tale – she endures multiple failed attempts and fractures more than one personal relationship – chasing her goal before finally completing the swim at age 64 on her 5th attempt.  Her attempts are plagued with all kinds of problems – sharks, box jellyfish and, most critically, the weather conditions and ‘tricky’ ocean currents of the Gulf Stream.  It really is an incredible story of one person’s single minded determination to succeed…I know that I’m pretty keen to believe that she completed the crossing legitimately (whatever that even means!) but in all honesty, her willingness to put herself ‘out there’ to try and achieve a physical challenge at at 64 that she failed at age 28?  Well, that to me is both incredible and motivational.

What did I find most inspiring?

The aspect of the movie I appreciated the most was pretty simple – with each failure, Nyad did not look for excuses.  Instead, she sought solutions to the problems that impacted on her success.  In her first swim (age 28), she swam in a shark cage which was both uncomfortable AND would have meant even a successful crossing would have been considered ‘assisted’ by the world swimming authorities – so she sought out some shark wranglers and had them cross with her.  She found a navigator capable of reading the challenging currents of the Gulf Stream to ensure that the course she was following was the most-efficient.  After being stung by box jellyfish during one crossing – and effectively ‘dieing’ on the deck of her support boat – she went and found a jellyfish expert who assisted with equipment and on future crossings.  She amended her training program to include more strength and core training rather than just spending time in the water….it was a ‘I haven’t failed – I have been side-tracked by a problem I didn’t foresee…so I need a solution to that then I go again’ type approach.

I really (really) love this approach.  From a Round 1 perspective I repeatedly see this with members (and in myself if I’m being honest).  What happens is we all go well ‘for a while’ – when the stars are aligned getting to the gym is easy, eating well is easy…but then ‘something’ goes awry and knocks down our house of cards.  All of a sudden our 3-4 sessions per week become 1-2…or even 0-1! – and the problems just seem insurmountable.  But are they really?  It all depends on our willingness to find solutions…and with sessions starting as early as 5am and as late as 7:45pm, there is no doubt one can be found…Now – if you are in a ‘rhythm’ training at 6am or 5pm or whatever it might be then find that option taken away, well, yeah – that’s a pain.  And a challenge…but all it takes to solve it is a little bit of agile thinking and a bit of a reminder – “what did I start this for??”.  Going back to the movie, I wouldn’t recommend upsetting EVERY relationship in your life to get a gym session done in the way Diana does in order to complete her swim – but I would recommend having a chat to myself or one of the other trainers about creating a solution that MIGHT work!  Radical as it might seen, in nearly 14-years of running the gym I have seen a lot of different ‘successful’ strategies AND of course a lot that were not quite as effective…aka I will pretty much certainly be able to help.

Connecting the Dots

Achieving success – whether in a ‘big’ way like Diana was able to do – or by doing something as simple as ticking the boxes on your own personal fitness goals just by getting to the gym 3x each week – takes persistence, commitment and a willingness to overcome obstacles – some big, some small.  I know it is pretty easy to shrug off ‘I got to the gym 3x this week’ as ‘nothing’…but it isn’t nothing.  It’s 100% something.  And it’s 100% a lot more than most people out there are willing to do…and don’t forget, we train HARD!!!  The secret is though that you have to think about getting your sessions done as an achievement…and be happy with yourself.  Whether you are rewarding yourself with your own personal high-five (which is enough for some) or with a new workout outfit if you manage to do 5-weeks in a row it really doesn’t matter…you need to continually remind yourself that what you are doing is 100% important and 100% good for you.

SImilarly, should you FAIL to achieve your mini-target – maybe you only got to 2x sessions this week, maybe you lost focus and had that glass of wine mid-week – then you also need to assess.  What went wrong?  What do I need to do to ensure I don’t trip up again on that SAME obstacle…what small change can I make to ensure ‘that’ doesn’t sidetrack me again…

Anything else?

I guess the only other thing I wanted to say about this movie/story is that it PROBABLY is something you have seen before.  If you have watched a movie or documentary – or read a book – about the incredible achievements made by one person or team, then you will probably quickly understand the ‘beats’ of the story as they unfold in front of you.  Think about ‘The Hurricane’, ‘Adrift’, ‘Alive’, ‘Lion’, ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, ‘127 hours’ – even fiction like ‘Rocky’, ‘Warrior’ or ‘Cool Runnings’…well, if you’ve seen those stories, you know what you’re in for.

Each of these stories plays out as follows:  The scene is set, the personal demons and history are continually referenced, the challenge seems both unlikely AND insurmountable, the obstacles seem to keep on coming to the point where as viewers we can FEEL the frustration of the characters – as in, “Oh no – surely THAT didn’t just happen”…but STILL, in the end, the goal is achieved.  The reason these stories seem so familiar though is because of two pretty simple reasons – it is LONG-TERM persistence in the face of a series of SHORT-TERM problems that leads to success for each of the characters (whether the story in question is fact or fiction).  And for each of us just trying to get to the gym and live a ‘healthier life’, the same things remain true!

Go watch NYAD.  It’s awesome.

See you in the gym,


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