Can anyone be more aptly named than Diana Nyad? In Greek mythology a nyad (or naiad) was a water nymph. It is also the name given to the aquatic stage of certain insects, such as the mayfly.
Now after four attempts, 64-year-old Nyad has done what no one has done before. Without a shark cage or swim fins, she completed the 100-mile swim from Cuba to Florida. How anyone can do this over a long distance in waters filled with sharks and jellyfish is beyond my comprehension.
I wonder what motives such a person.
Nyad provides part of the answer in a piece she wrote for me in my book Ethics for Everyone.
I asked her to comment on the following situation:
Brad and Kevin are good friends. They both enjoy running. However, there is only one opening on the school track team. Brad, the far superior of the two runners, decides not to try out because he knows that if he does, Kevin won’t make the team, and he knows how important it is to Kevin to make the team.
“Most male coaches of male youth teams need the win too badly to play the inferior kids when the big game is on the line,” she said. “On the other hand, most female coaches of female youth teams deem it more important for every girl on the team to play some part.”
Nyad continued, “For women, sports have meant freedom — freedom from the constricting Victorian garb, freedom from the shackles of perpetual pregnancy, freedom to get an education. For men, sports have meant a proving grounds for comparative worth within the society.”
Nyad’s insights regarding the differences between female and male athletes appears to true beyond the sports arena.
In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Kate Ratliff, of the University of Florida, and Shigehiro Oishi, from the University of Virginia, find that men and women respond differently to their partner’s success. “Men's implicit self-esteem is lower when a partner succeeds than when a partner fails, whereas women's implicit self-esteem is not."
When a female partner succeeded, her male partner’s self-esteem was negatively impacted. When a male partner succeeded, his female partner registered no negative emotion.
Males, it appears, measure themselves against others—even their intimate relations—while a woman’s self-esteem rests elsewhere. In Nyad’s terms, men want to win while women want to play an important part. Men’s worth is comparative; women’s self-esteem is linked to tasks that provide for personal freedom.
These differences may not be inherent in biology, but more than 40 years after the women’s movement, it is clear that men and women bring different sensibilities to the social world.
"These gender differences have important implications for understanding social comparison in romantic relationships," Raitliff and Oishi write.
So they do. As for Nyad, hers is a great personal achievement and, I hope, serves as an inspiration of fortitude and resilience to both males and females.