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Swimming Toward a Lifetime Goal

Diana Nyad, 61, explains her motivation for attempting to swim 103 miles from Cuba to Key West

In early August, marathon swimmer Diana Nyad, 61, set out to swim 103 miles from Cuba to Key West, Fla., in open water and without a shark cage.  After 29 hours of enduring shoulder pain, asthma and bad weather conditions, she abandoned her attempt.  In this piece, written prior to the swim, Nyad explains her motivation for trying to achieve this challenging athletic feat.

As I approached my 60th birthday last year, I was experiencing what millions of people my age tend to feel: disenfranchised, no longer valued, terribly worried that my best days were behind me.

Yet in my heart, I knew that the business of life is to live large: You can dream at any age. This is especially true for us boomers. We can put truth into those words. We are far from irrelevant as we grow older. We're now emotionally mature, brimming with wisdom and calm, still physically strong. As I see it, these years should be the prime of our lives.

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That's why I've spent the last year training for a swim that I was unable to complete when I was in my 20s: A 103-mile route between Cuba and Florida. I was the first athlete to ever attempt that route, and now I'm more determined than ever to complete it. It's been a time of intense commitment — many 8-, 10-, 12- and 15-hours swims and now I'm looking at the seas, ready to fulfill my lifelong dream.

Back in '70s, I broke many records as a long-distance swimmer. I've been honored for my achievements in halls of fame around the world: My 102.5 continuous miles from the Bahamas to Florida in 1979, the farthest ocean swim ever recorded; my 50-year record-breaking swim around Manhattan Island; and others.

I've had a stellar athletic career and achieved my dream of swimming the farthest open-water distance in history. Yet my dream of swimming from Cuba to Florida was dashed in 1978, after fighting stiff winds and huge seas for 41 hours and 49 minutes, I was still unable to reach the Florida coast.

Until about a year ago, I had taken a hiatus from swimming for 30 years. I'd been so gripped by swimmer's burnout that I had decided I'd never, ever swim a lap again in my life. But as I was closing in on the final months of my 50s, I was thrown into the existential angst of wondering what I had done with my life. I felt choked by how little time seemed left. I started swimming a few laps, just to take some pressure off the knees from all the other activities I enjoy.

My workouts escalated. My motivation started to burn like a fire in my soul. One day I was driving, after a long swim, and I stopped and looked hard in the rearview mirror. And I told myself, "This is one dream I actually could go back and achieve. At 60, I could swim from Cuba to Florida … this time, without a shark cage." (The first time around, I used a cage — which certainly made me feel secure from aggressive sharks. But it also dissipates waves and currents; this means you're no longer in open elements and, therefore, you're not competing in the swim fairly and squarely.)

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Last year, I completed the final tough stage of training: a 24-hour swim from about 40 miles off the shores of Key West back to the Florida coast. This was the ultimate confidence builder for the Cuba swim. I felt strong every single stroke of the way. It was heartening to feel so good and to work so hard. I may be a bit slower today, but I can honesty say I believe I have more body endurance now than I did at 30.

Initially, I had planned to do the Cuba swim last summer. Our crew of experts — from navigators to shark divers — had spent countless hours fine-tuning all aspects of the expedition. I was ready to go, and waited day after day for conditions to be right. But strong winds and lowering sea temperatures all conspired to force me to postpone the swim.

Now we're back again, watching and waiting for conditions to be just right so I can undertake this long-awaited challenge. In mid-July, it appears that the moment is imminent, and any day now I'll be diving into the waters to begin my pursuit. Whatever lies ahead, I'm sure of one thing: As I take those strokes en route to Cuba, I will be conquering the fears that I had about growing older.

The process of preparing for this swim has shown me how vital I am at 61. And now, if I can make it all the way across, if I can get to that distant shore, I hope that my fellow baby boomers will be inspired to light the fire themselves — and reach for their dreams, whatever they might be.