By Karen Malone Wright
I met Diana Nyad this week. Well…I didn’t meet her. I could have, but I’m getting ahead of the story.
Diana (“Ms. Nyad” just sounds stupid in this context) was the keynote speaker at a conference for female entrepreneurs. Who better to tell you not to give up on a dream than the woman who swam through sharks and jellyfish from Cuba to Florida at 64 years old? People have been trying to finish that swim since 1950.
She scored a higher Q rating for me after that feat. Previously, to be honest, I only had vague memories of her time as a swimming announcer for ABC Sports. I knew she’d been crazy enough to try the Cuba swim before.
She tells her life story with the passion of someone who lived it and isn’t tired of looking back. As a teen, nationally ranked and first in Florida, she was raped by her trusted swim coach. In her 20s, she failed to place for the Olympic team. But, she continued to set records, and attempted the Cuba swim in 1978, twice in 2011 and again in 2012 before finally succeeding in 2013. Now, her mantra is “Find a way.” There’s always a way, she says. Find it.
Diana’s a super-fit 64, and she looks pretty darned good. Her presentation was far more compelling than I’d expected. She gave a version of it at TED Women in December 2013, and a new documentary follows the real-life drama. Anyway, when she was done, there was time for only 3 questioners, and I was one of them.
Listening to her talk, I thought of how many times the A-hole on my shoulder whispers that building a website and a brand that you love– especially when you have to first learn how to do it — is not necessarily a logical, self-protecting action for a person in her late 50s. And so, I stood up, introduced myself and this website, and asked Diana Nyad one question, two ways:
“Has there ever been someone with the guts to tell you to your face that you’re too old for what you want to do, and, have you ever heard that voice inside your own head?”
She smiled and looked right at me while she answered. Not all speakers do that, btw, and I appreciated it, especially since I was pretty far from the stage. Her answer was SO good. Fired me UP. Maybe it’ll do the same for you. She said something close to this:
“First, I don’t walk around thinking I’m in my 60s, or I’m a Democrat, or I’m gay, or I’m an atheist, or any of that, even though all those things are true. Those are other people’s labels, and they can have them. I’ve got things to do. I’ve considered myself a champion since before my teens. I walk on this planet like I own it.
“There’s only one time I can think of that someone let me know they thought I was too old, and that was when I did Dancing With the Stars. I was in the best shape of my life. Dance practice hours at a stretch didn’t bother me. But, they kept offering me a chair to rest in, or urging me to take a break and not tax myself. Finally, I looked at the guy and said, “I just swam from Cuba to Florida! Are you kidding me?”
Thunderous applause. Standing ovation. Time to get to the next session, down a long hall, to the left, past the bathroom, take a right. There was a long line of women waiting to meet Diana and take a selfie. I decided it wasn’t worth it. But, she’s a NotMom (as she said, that’s my label, not hers), and a pic would have been nice. Instead, all I have is this pitiful, shaky shot taken from my far-away lunch table. I’ve decided her words will stick with me longer than a picture anyway.