Libby Ernharth Ak-O-Mak Alumni Chat with Diana Nyad
On Wednesday February 10th I was lucky enough to see Diana Nyad speak about her book, her life and her drive.
Diana spent a summer swimming at Ak-O-Mak in preparation for her swim across Lake Ontario in 1970. Buck Dawson is credited with introducing Diana to marathon swimming. In her autobiography, Find a Way, she talks about a quote that she comes across and posts on her wall for years, “A diamond is a lump of coal that stuck with it.”
Diana swam around Manhattan Island setting records in 1975. She then made two attempts to reach the Keys from Cuba in 1978 and 1979 and the latter was to be her last swim on her 30th birthday. Both were amazing swims from the standpoint of accomplishment but neither completed her mission. Life brought her back to Cuba and in 2013 at the age of 65. She successfully reached the Keys from Cuba after 53 hours of swimming, on her 5th attempt.
Diana’s talk was amazing. She spoke of the playlist in her brain as she swam. The years and hours of training that resulted in timing and cadence so precise that albums playing in her head, lists of counting in various languages consistently corresponded to mileage and hours in the water. Time after time a complete album represented a certain number of miles, a certain number of minutes. I suspect that Diana is a metronome.
Her primary speech topic was…
“What will you do with your one precious life?”
She didn’t interpret this in the traditional, athletic career time frame. She didn’t speak to "what will you do with your college athletic career” or “what you will do when you fail to accomplish your life’s goal the first few times.”
Diana clearly emphasized a key to her success, her team…the scientist and doctors who helped to treat and eventually avoid the deadly box jelly fish that almost killed her during an attempt, her handlers and dear friends…the ones who made her eat when her mouth was raw from saltwater ulcers and when she was seasick. Those who navigated her seas, helped her to create a mask to protect her skin from the jelly venom. Diana is clearly an amazing athlete, a testament to the power of a stubborn, driven brain. But Diana’s words and humility were that of a true leader, a gracious athlete who knew that her success did not belong just to herself and she communicated this so clearly to her audience.
After the speech, I was able to briefly speak to Diana. Her ability to pause and share our small overlap in the universe without making me feel rushed struck me. I showed her a picture of her name on the main house wall. Thank goodness it was in black marker and NOT in toothpaste! (I had taken the photo when visiting Ak-O-Mak after dropping my boys at Chikopi). We talked about Buck…(big smiles)… "he was my first open water coach.” She had spoken of being an atheist during her talk in response to an audience question but she told me that "if there was a God, then swimming on Ahmic Lake was the closest (she) had ever been to God". She showed true smiles of fondness.
I walked back to my car with a new excitement about swimming and a refreshed attitude and outlook for a dreary cold February day. I have always held that Buck Dawson should have emphasized camp’s role in the mission of athletics for life. Matt Mann’s quote “a diamond is a lump of coal that stuck with it” isn’t a metaphor for campers only. It is for counselors and owners, parents and alumni. To become that diamond takes longer that it takes to get a 5 year ring or 10 year watch at Ak-O-Mak or Chikopi. It occurs while doing what you plan with your one precious life. What an amazing night! I am so thankful to have been affected by her journey. I highly recommend her book, her speaking tour and her TED talk.