Before openly lesbian long-distance swimmer, author and journalist Diana Nyad took the stage to address a Sept. 7 lunchtime audience at the Union League Club of Chicago's Authors Program, the podium that had been used for routine housekeeping announcements and to introduce her was removed.
As Nyad candidly invited the diners to dive into her life and the seemingly impossible dream that was realized when she became the first person to swim the notoriously dangerous waters between Havana, Cuba and Key West, Florida, the reason for the podium's extraction became clear.
Nyad faced barriers all her life, sometimes in the form of "expert" advisors who used graphs to illustrate just how the dream she had nurtured for 35 years, went after four times and foundered almost at the cost of her life, simply could not be done.
When, on the fifth attempt and at the age of 64, she proved them wrong, Nyad made barriers obsolete. Therefore it was only appropriate that there should be none between herself and her audience.
Besides, Nyad needed the entire stage not just to tell but to act out a story described in such vivid detail that the usual soundtrack of silverware scraping over plates that accompanies mealtime presentations was reduced to enthralled silence as the audience relived the "lonely, grueling" 53 hours Nyad spent pushing her body and willing her mind even another meter closer to the Florida coast.
"You've got a tight cap over your ears because you are immersed in a liquid 12 to 15 degrees colder than your body temperature," she said. "You're turning your head close to once a second. Every time you stop, you are not pushing forward and you're getting dragged to the east. When you are way off shore, the sharks come from two miles away and are always there under you. The box jellyfish has the most potent venom on the earth. You're in the middle of hypothermia, you're hallucinating freely. You are drifting off into the land of Stephen Hawking and the majesty of the universe. Childhood is wafting through your brain."
That childhood began in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with a Greek father Nyad described as a "larger-than-life, dramatic and histrionic. Every day was an emotional exaltation."
She recalled that he would wake her and her siblings up at 3 a.m. in the morning to travel to the ocean's edge and take in its majesty while reminding Nyad that it was her destiny to "become a champion swimmer."
"I didn't know what destiny was," she said. "I was only 5. The word I heard that day was 'champion.' I remember walking with my shoulders a little higher."
When a teacher told Nyad that "you're going to be the best swimmer in the world," she needed no further inducement to begin the disciplined training regimen needed to become precisely that.
"Four-thirty in the morning, every day with never an alarm clock needed," she said. "A thousand sit-ups every night."
At the same time, the Cuban revolution occurred.
"Literally overnight, thousands of Cubans flooded into my home time," Nyad remembered. "I was standing with my French mother one day and I said 'Mom, where is Cuba?' She said 'it is so close, you could almost swim there.' There was a little flutter in the back of my imagination."
Nyad ultimately fulfilled her destiny andas she began to break records, whether traversing the Bay of Naples or circling Manhattan Island"that flutter became a fixation."
"They called it 'The Mount Everest' of the Earth's oceans," she said. "The top distance swimmers in the world had tried it since 1950 and nobody had ever made it across. Cuba was a struggle of the soul for me."
She first lost that struggle during a 41-hour attempt in 1978.
Refused successive visas to return to Cuba in order to try again, Nyad "left that beautiful dream behind" and went to work as a journalist, documenting the achievements of "the best in the world."
"But every time someone tried to make it across, I had my eye on them," she said. "I didn't wish anybody any harm, but when they didn't make it, I did a little happy dance."
Nyad hadn't swum in forty years when she remembered that, at the age of 60, she was "seized with this existential angst of 'who am I?' I was a spectator, I was a doer. I was chasing after other people chasing after their dreams. After Christopher Reeve had his accident, that made him a quadriplegic he used to say all the time, 'Don't wait for tomorrow. Whatever your dreams are, go after them today. You don't know what proverbial banana you may slip on'."
For Nyad, August 2011 marked the start of a hunt. Her prey was the dream and, no matter how it eluded her by using the disabling stings of jelly fish or the equally merciless power of the currents that sent her veering hopelessly off-course, no matter how many scientists or cable news doctors told her it was impossible, she would take up the weapons of mind and body and begin the hunt again.
When she finally reached the shores of Key West on Sept. 2, 2013, Nyad told the massive crowds who had gathered, "Never, ever give up. You are never too old to chase your dreams."
At the Union League event, she said, "More than anything, the critical element to all of our success, whether it's beating cancer, surviving the loss of a job, raising a disabled child or writing that great American novel, if you just don't quit you will eventually reach that other shore of yours.
"I also believe you are never too young to chase your dreams. It barely matters what you do and what your choices arejust do them to your full being and you will have no regrets."