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Swim or Sink

Other Shores

by Diana Nyad
Random House, 174 pp., $8.95

Last week, I was in the Columbia gym. Walking up the stairs to the women’s locker room, talking about the possibility of cutting the time for my half-mile swim to fifteen minutes, I listened to my friend: “Ten years ago we were protesting the construction of this gym. Now, nobody would care if Columbia burned Harlem down as long as everyone had a place to jog.”

In 1968, one of the issues Columbia students struck over was the construction of the new gym. It was seen as yet another example of the powerful, white elite (I think we called them the Establishment then—or maybe by that time only they called themselves that, thinking that was what we called them) diverting funds toward the pampering of the privileged. “The Community” was to have only limited access to the gym; people from the community would have to enter by a separate door. This was seen as yet another example of large institutions using the blacks and the poor and denying them access to the fruits of their land and their labor.

If 1968 was the year of the barricades, 1978 is the year of the runner. Perhaps in despair of changing the outside world, or even the immediate community, people have decided to cultivate their gardens. It was not a dramatic step from “mind expansion” to “sensitivity training.” And sensitivity training led to the self-actualization movement: once you knew who you were, you could start becoming better at it.

But now, all these movements have taken an interesting turn. The garden everyone is cultivating is the body. The latest American obsessions are food and exercise. I suppose they have always been American obsessions, but they used to be more innocent. People used to like to watch other people be athletic; there was a lot of real conviviality out there in the stands. There is little conviviality among runners. The otherworldly glow in the eye of someone who has given up Ring-Dings for alfalfa sprouts, the Friday night fights for a daily squash game, takes part of its luster from the fire that kindled the hearts of the saints. They know they are better than you. They are saved; you are damned to an eternity of high blood pressure, fat, and arteries that harden out of season. But what are they saved for?

Food freaks are a colony of philosophes compared to born-again athletes. Conversation about one’s pulse rate is even more distasteful than conversation about one’s favorite health food. But both require a self-absorption that people used to consider unseemly. There are a lot of reasons why our present phase of body-consciousness had to follow the overactive Sixties. The Sixties could be very hard on the body; all the late nights, the junk food for the Revolution, and particularly the drugs that were a mandatory part of the good life then did not leave everyone undamaged. The new emphasis on physical health may be an attempt to repair some of these damages. And perhaps after the sexual liberation of the Sixties, which will probably not be reversed, austere diet and exhausting exercise may be the only mode of chastity left us. Moreover, absorption in the body is less dangerous to lives and property, particularly the lives and property of others, than political activity. The regression to what is now called the “new narcissism” may be a backward process of maturation, clearly in the interest of a society like our contemporary one which feels it cannot bear the shock of change.

The great pleasure of the body is that it responds more or less automatically. If we can’t stop Seabrook, maybe we can lengthen our Achilles tendons. At least they will lengthen if we do what the books tell us. Our bodies may be the only things around us that respond rationally, that respect the archaic relationship of cause and effect. Certainly, there is no political cause that does.

The one political movement that has spanned the army jacket and running shorts is the women’s movement. For some feminists, diet and exercise take on a new, perhaps a political significance. Because for centuries women bought their futures with their bodies, their relationships to their bodies were determined by the effects those bodies would have on men. So we dieted, not to be healthier, but to be more beautiful. We exercised, not for strength or flexibility, but for curves. Little girls who were athletic quickly got the message to cut it out by seventh grade; the aw-shucks admiration for the tomboy fades directly in proportion to the number of years she is past puberty. My female relatives habitually warned me of a great aunt who couldn’t have children because she was “too athletic.” We were not supposed to do anything we couldn’t do in dresses.

Many women feel they are making a small revolution every time they try to do some physical activity they were told was inappropriate to women. I sometimes share this bias. Every time I exhaust myself in exercise, I feel I am defying all those elders who warned us that we would not be loved if we chose a life that could be lived outside an iron lung.

Maybe this is just another kind of narcissism. Maybe the feminist response to the doldrums of ERA passage is the desire for bigger biceps. The fact is, women want what they didn’t have. Female bank presidents are more interesting than male bank presidents; there are fewer of them; they are fighting against stereotypes; one can at least imagine that there may be some idealism behind all that ambition. I used to feel the same way about women athletes. Diana Nyad interested me because she was a feminist and a swimmer. In the scale of obnoxious displays of physical endurance, marathon swimming ranks pretty low. First of all, swimming is an invisible sport. Only someone deeply interested in a swimmer will watch him or her for any length of time; there’s nothing much to see: a hand coming out of the water, a head turning. And for years, perhaps since Gertrude Ederle, swimming has not been a sport that got its share of the big money or the big publicity. (The exception, of course, was Mark Spitz. But he was a racing, not a marathon swimmer.) I imagined that the physical logistics of marathon swimming might endow in its practitioners an enforced modesty.

I was glad that Nyad’s swim from Cuba to Florida last summer got the national attention it deserved; I certainly would not have been aware of it unless the press and television had taken it over; I’ve never read a sports magazine. Nyad’s swim was the first athletic event I’ve ever been interested in. The idea of a marathon swim seemed appealing. I thought it would have all the positive attractions of an athletic event: the desire to push the body beyond known limits, the breaking of records, without the unattractive aspects of athletic competitiveness. And marathon swimming has poetic suggestions: Hero and Leander, the lone one fighting for breath in a foreign element.

I waited every night for the TV coverage of Nyad’s upcoming swim. I worried when I heard the first bad news about unfavorable tides, and was appalled when I saw the first footage of Nyad being taken from the water, her face cruelly distorted by the stings of jellyfish. I thought that Other Shores would tell me about the motivation of a woman so driven that she would endure enormous physical pain simply to accomplish something, something really rather abstract and grand, simply because she wanted to do it. I was interested in the physical details of her training, and I particularly wanted to know what it was like to be cold and exhausted, and to know that you would go on being that way for another twenty hours. I didn’t expect Nyad’s book to be well written. But the spectacle of the swim seemed stirring, and I wanted a figure to embody my private idea of a woman who had achieved exaltation in a way traditionally open to men, the way of physical extremity.

The beginning of Other Shores was not encouraging.

After a six-month writing stretch, I sat down with the completed manuscript of this book to see exactly what I had created. However delighted I was with some aspects of it, I was appalled to discover that the persona of the book, myself, came across as such an overly dramatic braggart. I tried to tone the drama down here and there, but it seems I am simply not given to understatement. My world view is dramatic. Every minute seems like the most important minute of my life. I don’t expect the reader to identify with my extremity; I only ask him to accept it.

I should also ask acceptance of my arrogance. I pride myself on the fact that I respect others and listen to others and that I know the value of every individual’s life is precisely equal to my own. I was surprised to find, as I read my own book, what a high opinion of myself I harbor. It will perhaps be offensive to some. My rationale is that this book is my home turf; self-esteem is only natural.

There is probably nothing worse than an apology that doesn’t apologize. That introductory note reminded me of a girl in my grammar school who would insult everyone and say “No offense” afterward. It has always been a knotty moral problem to determine if the sinner is more or less guilty for his awareness of the offense.

Perhaps great egotism is inevitable in someone who would embark on anything like a marathon swim; it may be fine in the locker room, it may even pass in a TV interview; but it is death when one is writing about oneself. Nyad doesn’t just think she’s a great athlete; she’s impressed with her inner life as well:

I am grateful for having inherited an amount of natural ability. But my pride lies in my courage. Churchill said that “courage is the highest of all human virtues.” I am proud to have developed both the courage to attempt difficult feats and the courage to persevere through difficult months and years en route to those feats. I have swum twenty hours in Lake Ontario, forty hours in the North Sea, and on sheer guts, I have beaten some of the top men in the world who were stronger and faster than I.

Perhaps one of the most difficult things for feminists to accept is that women, even feminists, are not freer from certain aspects of Original Sin than men are. It was, I now see, part of my naïveté to assume that Nyad’s feminism would free her from the grosser kinds of competitiveness that bedevil male athletes. She tells us, with barely concealed glee, that the greatest satisfaction of her first competitive marathon swim came to her not from the achievement of her own swimming, but as a result of having beaten Judith de Nijs, the then world champion who had said to Nyad before the swim: “I hear you’re a very good swimmer. Vell [sic] you’re not going to beat me!” Nyad says of that swim:

The distance was ten miles, the water temperature was 62 degrees, and out of sixty professional swimmers, I finished tenth. Not a bad showing for the first time out. But better than that was the fact that I beat Judith that day (she never swam again)….

This hardly indicates the impending approach of a feminist utopia. There is no hint that Nyad is sorry that de Nijs did badly on her last swim. I would like to think that the irritation of someone saying, “Vell, you’re not going to beat me,” could at least be balanced by some sort of sisterly camaraderie. Wrong again.

Nor is Nyad immune to the claims of money and recognition that have corrupted that male protectorate, professional athletics. She is clear about the economic implications of the Cuba swim. And money makes a difference.

Most of the swims I have done, even the very difficult and the tricky ones, have been fly-by-night operations…. My highest expectation was in reaching the other shore, and nothing else interested me. The Cuba swim is of a different era. Recognition and money and future attract me now.

All this might be refreshing (no one ever calls anything refreshing unless he suspects it is in some way distasteful) if Nyad did not say three pages later of the very same Cuba swim, “To my imagination, this swim has developed in the genre of the old Greek myth—grandeur and excellence lie at its core.”

Which is it, then, a Greek myth, or a nest egg and Studio 54? Who is responsible for this confused perception? Did the TV cameramen who hung over Nyad’s shark cage make the swim more or less romantic, more or less venal? Do money and publicity, which now accompany almost all athletic achievements in America, make these achievements different in kind from what they have been? Would Pheidippides be less heroic if he had run for a cut of the gate? These should be interesting questions to a feminist athlete; Nyad does not address them.

By the time I was through fifty pages of Other Shores, I felt a kind of disappointment I hadn’t felt in reading a book since I was an adolescent. I wanted Diana Nyad to tell me what I wanted to hear in the way I wanted to hear it as I had wanted Jo to marry Laurie in Little Women. I learned an excessive amount about Nyad’s daily workouts (she devoted 25 pages of a 174-page book to this topic) but I am very little closer to knowing the motives or the emotions of Diana Nyad than I was after watching her on the Johnny Carson show.

Apparently, Nyad is drawn to this grueling ordeal because she thinks it will make her a better person:

Under the murderous pressures of extremity, there is a need to sustain the power and the wholeness of self when all else has been stripped away…. The integrity and self-esteem gained from winning the battle against extremity are the richest treasures in my life. When asked why, I say that marathon swimming is the most difficult physical, intellectual, and emotional battleground I have ever encountered, and each time I win, each time I touch the other shore, I feel worthy of any challenge life has to offer.

But this is pretty standard locker-room stuff: go out and get ‘em, guys; you’ll be a better man for it. Nyad says nothing of her own about the desire for physical excellence at the cost of physical comfort. She acknowledges that some of her friends call her masochistic, but never addresses the question in any serious way.

I suppose I must finally say it: Diana Nyad didn’t write the book I wanted to read. Perhaps what she wrote isn’t really a book at all, but simply a pep talk in hardcover. The timing of the book is peculiar. Nyad wrote it before the Cuba swim, but it was to be published after, as if she had completely ignored the possibility that her swim might fail.

Other Shores is rather like the feverish campaign biographies that appear around election years. Like those books, this one supplies, almost in spite of itself, some interesting information. From that standpoint, the most satisfying section of the book is the one in which Nyad compares her experiences of long-distance swimming to the experience of sensory deprivation. Her description of the nightmarish hallucinations she endures when she must swim blind because her goggles soon fog up are horrifyingly surreal.

The most attractive section of the book, because it is the only one that shows any real feeling, is Nyad’s account of her unsuccessful attempts to swim the English Channel. Perhaps disappointment is easier to write about than victory; perhaps it leads one to have more complicated thoughts. I wonder if an interesting book about Nyad could be written now—after the failure of the Cuba swim. But it probably should not be written by Diana Nyad; she can’t get out of her own way. It is nearly always a mistake to give accounts of one’s own heroism. Heroes are invented by other people. The messenger and the warrior have different geniuses. Trying to combine them may be one of our contemporary errors. Napoleon couldn’t have written War and Peace. But nobody asked him to.

What is most disappointing about Other Shores is the emptiness at its heart. Even an autobiography written for the voters would have more body; any political ambition, however narcissistic its root, has at least, when it is written about, to provide the reader with the illusion of the outside world. But physical achievement can be almost entirely solipsistic, which may be its great appeal. It doubtless makes people feel better about themselves, so they should go on doing it. But they should keep it to themselves.

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