Idolizing the American (Athletic) Hero

Early Monday afternoon, Diana Nyad touched land in Key West, FL after her 110-mile swim from the coast of Cuba. Though the 53-hour journey was successful, this accomplishment was truly 36 years in the making, for 64-year-old Nyad began her record-breaking adventure at age 28. From less than ideal weather conditions to unbearable jellyfish stings, Nyad endured nature’s wrath repeatedly, failing four times on her path to an excruciating, yet triumphant, fifth try. With determination driving her every move, Nyad overcame age—an assumed barrier in the athletic world—to achieve her lifelong dream of being the first person to ever swim from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage.


Nyad said she would “find a way” and, with her team by her side, the seasoned swimmer overcame the obstacles that once threatened her journey’s completion. “I got three messages,” Nyad told reporters after her return to dry land. “One is we should never, ever give up. Two is you never are too old to chase your dreams. Three is it looks like a solitary sport, but it’s a team.”

Often times, when it comes to sports, we glorify and praise players for their athletic prowess, for we admire their youth from the sidelines. Talented as they may be, we pay professional athletes exorbitant amounts of money to entertain us while partaking in an activity they truly enjoy (and would presumably play for free if money were no longer an issue). Though most attribute their obsessions to their love for the game, the fascination with sporting events and athletic achievements often stems from the onlooker’s wish to exude such physical superiority. (We do exist within a culture that values the young and locks away the old, after all.) We long for the speed, agility, and build of those who excel at our favorite pastimes.

But this week, Nyad traded her spot in the AARP registry for a place in the record books. She defied all odds to prove age need not define your being, for that number has no bearing on one’s dreams. She spent the last four years fighting to achieve something she once believed fell through her fingers as a young woman. Most would’ve allowed that initial failure to pass them by—many might’ve even let the struggle define their remaining years. Nyad, however, saw her mother’s death as the trigger for reevaluation. Nyad chose not to live with regret and defied our ageist notions to succeed where all others, including herself, had failed.

Now, not only does she hold an incredible record, but she stands as a symbol for courage and hope. She represents perseverance and determination, becoming an idol for both young and old. Her success spans generations, for her goals and accomplishments prove that giving up need not be an option no matter how long it takes to achieve your dreams. And, in a society that often depicts women as worthless once they’ve passed their physical prime, Nyad proves that health, wellness, and success go far beyond the pretty, young faces scattered about Hollywood. Her daring, dangerous adventure shatters both age and gender barriers, allowing her to embody a living metaphor that will inspire generations to keeping swimming toward their dreams, no matter how elusive the shores may appear.

(Image courtesy of


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