The Last Taboos

What we all think about, but never talk about

Diana Nyad and Swimming Torture

Must the hellish ordeal be our athletic ideal?

Diana Nyad displays her jellyfish scars
Diana Nyad displays her jellyfish scars
On her fifth try, 64-year-old endurance swimmer Diana Nyad recently became the first human to complete the 110 mile swim from Havana to Key West, without a shark cage for protection. She did it in 53 hours, vomiting repeatedly, neither ravaged by jellyfish nor being eaten, and earned universal acclaim as well as congratulations from President Obama, who tweeted her “Never give up on your dreams.”

But even though I am impressed by her achievement and her indomitable will, her attitude of grim determination sounds more like a nightmare to me. She speaks of the ocean and its perils as though it were her personal enemy, her private torture chamber; she proudly exhibits her battle scars. “Swimming,” she told The New York Times  “is the ultimate form of sensory deprivation,” and sensory deprivation is a particularly fiendish type of agony. How about sensory enrichment? Why must we idealize suffering in athletic performance, focusing singlemindedly on the goal rather than the experience, as though seeking pleasure in the activity itself shows a lack of serious commitment, and diminishes rather than enhances or gives meaning to any feat?

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The ordeal mentality guarantees that the only possible gratification is reaching the goal through suffering, and swimming seems particularly prone to this masochistic ideal. Not surprisingly, Nyad is a practitioner of distracted swimming. She has an internal repertoire of 85 songs, mostly Beatles hits, which she hums continuously, removing herself psychically from what her body is doing.

Not even amateur swimmers in chlorinated, sharkless indoor pools are exempt. The same attitude prevents them from experiencing the unique delights of moving through water; “grueling” and “boring” are adjectives many use to describe swimming. That’s why any pool is full of people with waterproof iPods strapped to their goggles to help them get through their requisite number of laps before they can escape onto dry land. “If only there could be a television at the bottom,” one told me. Rare is the college swimmer who swims for pleasure later in life. For these people there is little joy—let alone transcendent experience—in moving with power and grace through another element. Their only goal is to swim faster or get it over with, and how they do it or how they feel is irrelevant. Why bother? As a passionate amateur swimmer myself, one who has no desire to race and who swims exclusively for the joy of it, I hate to think what they’re missing.

There is another way. My coach Terry Laughlin, founder of Total Immersion Swimming, has won 6 open water championships in his 50s and 60s, participated in a relay of the English Channel, and writes about his adventures in the spirit of joy and self-discovery in his blog swimwellblog.com. “Discover your inner fish” is his playful but serious motto, and lifelong improvement is his only goal. His technique emphasizes the mindful experience of every stroke, even in daunting conditions. He believes that he gains something even when he loses, and his joy in what he calls the “water dance” is infectious. Grim determination is not the only form of determination.

Here’s what the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy has to say about the archtypical ordeal by sea, Odysseus’ 7-year trek from Troy’s battlefields to his island home in Ithaka, and the necessity of seeking meaning—and even spiritual and sensual gratification—in the voyage rather than the destination:

When you set out for Ithaka
hope that the journey will be long,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them…
you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you…
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out

She has nothing left to give you.                                          
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
that you will understand what all these Ithakas mean.

(after the translation by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)

Jeanne Safer, Ph.D., a psychotherapist in New York City for 40 years, is the author of 5 books on taboo topics.

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