YARMOUTH — As the press reported widely in early September, Diana Nyad swam 110 miles across the Florida Straits, from Cuba to the United States.

At the age of 64, she became the first person to achieve this feat without a shark cage. Her first attempt took place in 1978. This was her fifth and what she vowed would be her final try.

Ms. Nyad was in the water for 53 hours, providing her with a lot of time to contemplate her lifelong dream and reflect on its meaning. As soon as she climbed on to the beach in the Florida Keys, she shared three messages:

“One is: We should never ever give up. Two is: You’re never too old to chase your dreams. Three is: It looks like a solitary sport, but it’s a team.”

Even though our day-to-day lives rarely feature the need to fight off sharks and jellyfish that made Nyad’s ocean journey all the more remarkable, it struck me that her message could illuminate issues other than endurance swimming.


Perseverance, or what many call “grit,” has come into cultural focus of late, thanks in large part to the research of Angela Lee Duckworth, who late last month received a MacArthur Genius grant for her work in this field. She and her colleagues invite us to think about the critical importance of learning not to accept or avoid failure, but to embrace it and try again.

“Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals,” Duckworth said. “Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

In a class environment, this may mean tweaking a hypothesis and giving your research another try. Revising an essay for the sixth time. Working out a problem with a friend or colleague or family member until there’s a livable resolution.

Grit can show itself in myriad forms. It’s a worthy quality to encourage in ourselves and our children, no matter what the context.


To Nyad’s second message, I would only add, you’re never too young to chase your dreams, either. In schools, this imaginative capacity can operate in every classroom and every subject, from math to art, history to language.

A dream and a passion can emerge in a library or on a sports field or in a studio. Students and all of us around them need to name, honor and enact such passions for learning. As teachers, we need to help students discover not just talents but their own burning questions.

And students must be involved, too, taking responsibility for their own ideas with younger children learning from older ones. Schools can and should be places where the dreams of a lifetime ignite and begin to take flight.


In schools now, not only do students and teachers reinforce one another’s learning, students are increasingly learning to work in collaborative and flexible teams. The evolving world that the next generation of leaders will inherit will require this ability to move swiftly and calmly across disciplines and cultures. They will have to be masters of many disciplines and comfortable with many kinds of people to thrive in a volatile global economy.

This last point is particularly germane given the trajectory of Ms. Nyad’s journey from Cuba to the United States, two countries which we now know are within a swimmable distance, but have taken very different paths over the last half-century. Yet, in our increasingly flattened world, students will need to embrace difficult journeys, at least metaphorically, doing so with passion and the ability to thrive, even when real obstacles present themselves.

It’s important to note, too, that just after Ms. Nyad completed her swim, naysayers and doubters assailed her methods and questioned her results. Her response: “I swam. We made it, our team, from the rocks of Cuba to the beach of Florida, in squeaky-clean, ethical fashion.”

When someone pushes a limit of what seems to be humanly possible, as Diana Nyad did, educators and other professionals should listen. In the case of her remarkable swim, the story has the potential to inspire students in many parts of their lives, including those who will position them well for the future and embark on their own lifelong journeys, overcoming skeptics and obstacles and along the way.

— Special to the Press Herald

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