“Nyad” (2023). Cast: Annette Bening, Jodie Foster, Rhys Ifan, Eric T. Miller, Anna Harriette Pittman, Karly Rothenberg, Garland Scott, Jeena Yi, Johnny Solo, Luke Cosgrove, Grace Subervi, Belle Darling, Pearl Darling. Directors: Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi. Screenplay: Julia Cox. Book: Diana Nyad, Find a Way: The Inspiring Story of One Woman’s Pursuit of a Lifelong Dream. Web site Trailer.
It’s been said that it’s never too late to pursue one’s dream. But how many of us who are getting on in years actually make the effort to accomplish that? As time passes by, we may begin to feel like life is passing us by, too, sweeping away the opportunities to fulfill those aspirations and leading to relentless disappointment, frustration and depression. However, must it be that way? Sometimes we can succeed by adopting an unexpected approach. And, when we combine that with a firm belief in ourselves, there’s no telling what we might accomplish, as seen in the inspiring new fact-based biopic, “Nyad.”
Marathon open-water swimmer Diana Nyad had quite a ride when in her prime. In the 1970s, while in her 20s, she set a women’s record in the Gulf of Naples race, followed by a successful 28-mile circumnavigation of Manhattan Island and then setting another record in the 102-mile swim from North Bimini Island in the Bahamas to Juno Beach, FL. In fact, she succeeded at every venture she undertook except one – making the 103-mile swim across the Straits of Florida from Havana, Cuba to Key West, FL, an undertaking cut short by strong winds and 8-foot swells that pushed her off course. Those conditions also slammed her against the walls of the protective steel shark cage in which she swam. It was an unfulfilled dream that would haunt her for many years thereafter.
As the film opens, Nyad (Annette Bening) is approaching 60 and feels dissatisfied with her life. After 30 years working as a successful writer and broadcast journalist, she nevertheless feels restless and unfulfilled. She craves a new challenge to reignite the lost spark she felt when she was younger, but nothing she attempts fills that void. And this lack of fulfillment has caused her to withdraw from virtually everyone except her longtime friend, Bonnie Stoll (Jodie Foster), who has always been her confidante and touchstone. So what is she to do to relieve this seemingly endless ennui?
After reflecting on her circumstances, Nyad comes to realize that the only thing that would give her genuine satisfaction is getting back in the water and attempting the one swim she left uncompleted – the Florida Straits crossing from Havana to Key West. But, when Diana announces her intention to Bonnie, her friend is stunned. She then less than politely tells Diana that she’s being patently unrealistic. Bonnie says that undertaking a swim of that length at her age would be foolhardy and dangerous. Although Nyad’s physical condition is great for a woman of her years, Bonnie contends that it’s not what it was three decades ago. Add to that the hazards of dangerous, unpredictable currents, problematic weather conditions, and the perils of sharks and jellyfish, and the endeavor becomes a near-impossible challenge for virtually anyone, no matter what their age or physical prowess.
But, despite Bonnie’s impassioned concerns, Diana is undeterred. What’s more, to up the ante in this attempt, she insists on swimming in open water without the “encumbrance” of a protective shark cage. And, to help solidify Bonnie’s reluctant support for this venture, Diana names her as her coach, a prospect she rails against due to a lack of experience in such a role. But Nyad also knows that her best friend won’t abandon her in a time of need, a belief that proves correct when the reluctant trainer agrees to sign on for the project.
As training begins, it quickly becomes apparent that Nyad may not be up to the challenge she’s set for herself. Her physical state is strong, but it may not be as strong as she thinks it is, a scenario that worries Bonnie, as it may be proof of her reservations. The coach also has to address challenges like finding a way to protect the swimmer against ocean predators without the benefit of a shark cage. And then there are the challenges posed by fickle ocean currents and weather conditions and finding someone who can successfully guide Diana and her support crew through those potentially ominous waters.
As these scenarios play out, viewers get an unadulterated view of how focused and determined Diana can be when it comes to fulfilling her goals. She’s so preoccupied with success, in fact, that she often comes across as obstinate, rigid and uncompromising, the kind of unbending person that many might readily be unwilling to support, especially in the pursuit of what seems to be improbable and unfathomable in the first place. Indeed, it’s not a good way to win over (or hold onto) allies – or even friends.
One might legitimately wonder what caused Diana to become like this. While she’s obviously a perfectionist – a quality that’s not exactly unusual – Diana often appears over the top in this regard. Yet, as the film shows, it’s a trait rooted in her past, when her younger self (Anna Harriette Pittman) became a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of her coach (Eric T. Miller), someone whom she implicitly trusted. This incident would come to haunt Diana throughout her adult life, because she believed that she should have had the mental and emotional toughness to fight back, a “failing” that she refused to allow to happen to her again. This steely determination thus translated into the resolve she carried with her into all of her undertakings, undoubtedly a valuable skill in helping her achieve success. But, as various aspects of this undertaking reveal, she sometimes carries things too far, running the risk of alienating those who could help her most.
This is where Bonnie’s role as coach plays such an important part. As someone who is aware of Diana’s history, she brings an understanding to the endeavor that other crew members do not possess. With this insight, she’s able to run interference for her friend when needed. It also enables her to put up with much more than what others might be willing to do. And it also inspires her to make an extra effort at looking into solutions for some of the project’s more important challenges. For instance, that’s how Bonnie finds a way to keep sharks away electronically, enabling Diana to swim without the benefit of a protective cage. Likewise, Bonnie’s efforts help to secure the expertise of navigator John Bartlett (Rhys Ifans), a seaman skilled in interpreting the interface of weather conditions and ocean currents in determining the best times to launch swim attempts. Then there’s the advice provided by jellyfish expert Angel Yanagihara (Jenna Li), who helps the crew find the best ways for dealing with these menacing sea creatures.
Over time, Diana’s conditioning improves, and, with a capable crew behind her, she’s ready to undertake the crossing. But, no matter how well prepared everyone might appear to be, there are intangibles that factor into the mix, complicating their efforts. And, over the next two years, Nyad makes four new attempts at completing her mission. The first three are aborted due to physical impairments, currents that push her off course, stormy weather, and jellyfish and Portuguese man-of-war stings. These recurring problems also cause her crew to lose enthusiasm for the venture, including Bonnie, decisions that prompt Diana to become more relentlessly demanding and single-mindedly unyielding than ever.
Is the dream dead? It certainly looks that way. But, given Diana’s determination, she’s convinced that her goal’s fulfillment is somehow attainable. And, as she would later write in her inspiring memoir, Find a Way: The Inspiring Story of One Woman’s Pursuit of a Lifelong Dream, Nyad figured it out, much of it coming about in an uncharacteristic manner. Indeed, as Diana’s story shows, achieving what we most dearly seek sometimes involves adopting an unexpected approach, one that no one sees coming but that works out nevertheless.
Of course, of utmost importance in scenarios like this is how firmly we believe in our abilities to accomplish these ventures. From what we see of Nyad’s character, it’s obvious she doesn’t have any problems in that area, and that’s crucial given the role that our thoughts, beliefs and intents play in the manifestation of these objectives. Such are the outcomes of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains these intangible resources are responsible for what turns up in our existence. It’s not clear how many of us have bought into this thinking, but Nyad sure has, even if she’s never heard of the name of this school of thought.
However, one might reasonably ask, if she’s so committed to attaining her goals, why did it ultimately take five attempts before Diana eventually succeeded? There could be a variety of reasons for this, depending on what belief mix she adhered to at the time of each swim. It could be, for example, that there were certain lessons she needed to learn in connection with each attempt, something that becomes apparent in the depiction of each of her bids to make the crossing. The knowledge gained from each attempt thus helped her to make improvements in subsequent trials.
But what was different about the last one that helped her succeed? As noted previously, when Diana set her mind to something, there was generally no stopping her. That single-mindedness helped her stay focused on the objective. However, that resolve sometimes got taken too far, not only in terms of pushing herself too hard, but also in pushing those on whom she depended for support. And, when many of them began losing their enthusiasm for the project after the fourth overall attempt, she was suddenly and seemingly without the backing she needed to make another bid.
Those who understand how the belief-based manifestation process unfolds are aware that we’re engaged in a collaboration with a divine partner that has our best interests at heart but that needs to be sure we’re ready for the success we seek. And, if we start to work against that process, the results often don’t turn out as hoped for. This is frequently called “pushing the Universe,” and, if we push too hard, our partner pushes back. At the same time, though, if we grasp this, we can also come to see that “the Universe leans in our direction.” This is something Nyad needed to learn when it came to the ways she treated herself and the members of her support crew, and it would seem that this is a lesson the Universe wanted her to get. Once she implemented these beliefs in her thinking, circumstances turned around for her, and fulfillment of the goal was hers to be had.
Admittedly, this had to have been a hard lesson for someone who was committed to the notion of “Never say die.” And there’s certainly tremendous merit and nobility in a belief in one’s confidence and determination for making dreams come true. But, when we become obsessed and inflexible in this regard, we can set ourselves up for disappointment and frustration. Is that what we really want? If not, then perhaps it’s time to take a step back and reassess how we’re approaching what we hope to achieve. Nyad did that, and so can we. Perfectionists take note.
In some ways, it’s not surprising that Nyad was so successful as she was at her swimming endeavors. In addition to her diligent training in the water, a skill that she honed from the time she was a youngster (Belle Darling, Pearl Darling), Diana was repeatedly reminded by her stepfather, Aris (Johnny Solo), that her adopted last name translated as “water nymph” in Greek. It was almost as if swimming was her destiny, and she so staunchly came to believe in that idea that it manifested in her life experience. We should all be so fortunate to be so attuned to what we’re meant to do. But, with the right combination of determination, flexibility and belief in ourselves, there’s no reason why it can’t happen for any of us – no matter what the endeavor or time of life. Diana proved that, inspiring us all to our own greatness. Indeed, when in doubt, just find a way.
First-time feature directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi effectively bring Nyad’s story to life in this engaging biopic, chronicling her remarkable odyssey and never shying away from portraying the fabled swimmer from all angles, both as a heroic, determined role model and as an off-putting, obstinate pain in the butt. The storytelling approach is admittedly somewhat formulaic and a tad overlong, but the picture’s overall execution provides an authentic depiction of the grueling ordeal Nyad and her crew underwent, all skillfully realized through the star power of Bening and Foster in their respective roles. The film also provides Nyad’s childhood back story, illustrating how she transformed trauma into a lifelong resolve for success and refused to play the part of a victim when the going got tough. It’s also refreshing to see a release that’s not afraid to showcase the story of an older woman, an often-overlooked demographic in contemporary cinema, showing viewers someone who just might have something worthwhile to say. “Nyad” probably doesn’t qualify as epic filmmaking, but it certainly makes the most of everything it has to work with, presenting viewers with an entertaining and inspiring watch, especially for those who feel cast aside and reconciled to their circumstances but who still have a burning desire for excellence aflame within them. The film is available for streaming as an exclusive on Netflix.
Many of us reach a point in our lives where we feel like we have nothing left to say or achieve. But, with sparks of commitment and fortitude in place, we can accomplish a lot – and in surprising significance and magnitude. And, if we add to that a solid belief in our abilities, we have a combination that’s hard to beat. Whether it’s writing a memoir or overcoming a challenging illness or swimming from Cuba to Florida, they’re all attainable if we set our minds to it. These may sound like daunting tasks to some, but, in the end, pursuing any of them is far preferable to settling for the rocking chair and biding our time. Just ask Diana.
Copyright © 2023, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.