Exclusive Interview: Diana Nyad’s Xtreme Life Lessons

Nyad, DianaThere’s persistence—say, trying to swim the 110 miles from Cuba to Florida without a shark-proof cage. And then there’s Diana Nyad persistence—trying four more times, despite rough seas and stormy weather, hours-long asthma attacks and paralyzing jellyfish stings, until she succeeded—all after turning 60 years old. Nyad could also brand leadership, resilience and success. Here’s her take on them and more.

Her Feat of Endurance

“The Cuba Swim particularly was always the stuff of Living Large to me. The endurance record is undeniable. The record is now part of history. But to me personally, Cuba was an emblem of living out loud my life credos: Never Ever Give Up, You’re Never Too Old to Chase Your Dreams, and We All Need A Team in Everything We Do [her capital letters].”

Mind over Matter

“Our team said, on the Havana shore before this last attempt, that we would Find A Way. That’s what a champion athlete does. No matter the obstacles, she finds a way to the other side. And people from all walks of life use that same attitude—25 million people wrote me, literally 25 million, I am still going through their emails from more than a year ago—to find a way through their business challenges, their health crises, their relationship struggles. If you want to get to your other shore, you will find a way.”

Leading with Her Ears

“I’m a strong personality. I’ve always been out front. But I’ve become a better leader by learning to listen, to have respect for my teammates and turn to them for their input. When I learned that I can’t do anything significant on my own, I became a more effective leader.”

The Athletic Advantage

“Perhaps even more critical for a girl than a boy, being a child athlete gave me a strong sense of self. It lays the groundwork for confidence, positive body image, accepting failure and turning around for another try until triumph is reached… All the athletic events I’ve ever participated in, win or lose, have been about much more than sports. There have always been the issues of character and courage and humility, acted out each time I entered the water.”

The Importance of Loyalty

“I lost my marriage by being disloyal. The tragic mistake of my life. They say we learn the hard lessons the hard way. Since that time, I have embraced loyalty like a religion. When I dedicate to a team, I have their back to the very last. You can’t start second-guessing your own. If you’ve done the research and you’ve committed to your company, your team, your friends, then you’re all in. It’s the only way to honor. And it’s usually the way to success.”

Dealing with Disappointment

“Nobody goes through life without disappointment, and worse. When we dream, if we’re brave enough to reach for the stars, the chances are much higher we’ll wind up disappointed than elated. People often think I’ve ‘won’ at everything I’ve ever tried. Au contraire. I have faced a mountain of failures. But it’s been my decision to shoot high, to believe in myself, to live a life of highs that naturally lead to a number of lows. Wallowing in disappointment has no purpose. But to experience disappointment is only human. Then we pick ourselves up and march ONWARD!”

A New Definition of Success

“I’m confused about the definition of success. Is this society’s version, where you are lauded by your peers, where your bank account is flush, where your resume is long and prestigious? Well, there’s nothing wrong with all that. But the older I get, the more philosophical I become about success. When I turned 60 and decided to go back and chase this lifelong Dream of mine, being the first to swim from Cuba to Florida, I wasn’t thirsty for another athletic record, another Hall of Fame induction. I was staring at myself in the virtual existential mirror, asking if I had really become a person I could admire. That’s success to me now.

“If my character is true, if I’m a person who would die rather than give up, then I’m a grand success.”

Diana Nyad will be a keynote speaker at the 2014 Texas Conference for Women.