Diana Nyad. Swimmer. Maverick. Champion. Going the distance without fear or reservation, triumphant in defiance of age and odds.
It’s no coincidence that, as your father pointed out when you were a child, the ancient Greek water nymph was a naiad. When you were 9, from your Fort Lauderdale beach, your mother noted that Cuba was almost close enough to swim to. And in your 5th grade essay, “What I Will Do for the Rest of my Life,” you planned to be a great athlete and a great surgeon.
It wouldn’t be unlike you to become a surgeon one day, but for now we look to the athlete in awe. In the 1970s you were, by all counts, the most accomplished long-distance swimmer in existence. You swam around this island of Manhattan in under eight hours, setting an open-water record for speed and becoming a star. Four years later, when you conquered the 102.5 mile stretch from the Bahamas to Florida, the distance record was yours as well. And in between, you coached our very own Barnard swim team for the 1975-76 season.
At 30, you hung up your goggles to become a sports broadcaster for the big networks and to write three books, all of which you did with signature passion and drive. But you and the water remained one, and at 60, the “Cuba almost close enough to swim to” called your name again. You retrained, refocused, and in perfect proof that the mental and physical go hand in hand, dove in. It was a Herculean effort that spanned decades (you first tried Havana to Key West in 1978), with a total of five attempts, countless breaths and strokes, waves and winds, injury and illness, stinging jellyfish and nearby sharks. With a devoted team by your side, you walked ashore on September 2, 2013—an epic feat of nearly 111 miles in just shy of 53 hours, complete.
When poet Mary Oliver asks “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” you answer the call better than anyone. Today, with that spirit in mind, the faculty and I will urge our students to set their own finish line and boldly stay the course. You inspire us to do whatever it is we dream of doing, the journey and the destination of equal importance.
I am very proud to present you with the 2015 Barnard Medal of Distinction. It’s waterproof, Ms. Nyad. Go for it.