For thirty-five long years, I had a vision. It was palm trees on a Florida beach, or night lights on a Florida shore seen from out at sea, seen after swimming one hundred some miles all the way from Havana, Cuba. Last year, Labor Day 2013, that vision at long last materialized before my exhausted eyes.
Two hours before reaching Smathers Beach in Key West, I stopped swimming and signaled my 44 dedicated teammates to circle ‘round. They were perched atop our five-boat flotilla and I cried like a baby. I thanked them for their loyalty and all the innovation and expertise they brought to the Expedition through the years. I told them when I stumbled up on that beach in a little while to never forget that WE did this. WE made history.
I was dazed on that beach. 52 hrs, 54 mins, 18 secs. 110.86 miles. It’s funny that during all the many unending training swims (15 hours one day, 18 the next, etc.), I had ego-rehearsed what I might say, what grand oration would come forth, if I ever did reach that elusive shore. But last Labor Day, there were no such prepared recitations. I actually don’t have a real-time memory of my words, but I’ve seen the video plenty since then.
And it turns out that those three summary maxims I uttered when finally standing on dry ground captured the ultimate messages I carried with me, not only on that final crossing, but throughout the Cuba Swim quest, all those thirty-five years. Truths I want to live by.
First: “Never, Ever Give Up.”
It’s easy to give up. There are all kinds of reasons good enough to give up. But to persist, to endure, to put your will toward a dream that sparks you, is to live large. I chose the Cuba Swim because of its mystique. A forbidden land. The notion of swimming between two countries, and finishing in my own country. And Cuba was stamped impossible. That was an intoxicating challenge.
Sports scientists, other marathon swimmers, the media, they all listed the myriad reasons nobody had ever made it unaided, dating back to 1950. But in those detailed lists of obstacles, they forgot to take into consideration the power of the human spirit. I am less proud today of having made it across than I am of not giving up on it, no matter how daunting it seemed, no matter how crushing the four previous failures were.
Second: “You’re Never Too Old to Chase Your Dreams.”
You’re also never too young to chase your dreams. Our lives screech by us. Each one of us walks a one-way street. We never get to do any one day over again. My fear has always been letting it all quietly slip away. I’d rather fail while reaching for a magical star than play it safe. To be bold, to be a maverick, to stretch beyond established limits, is the stuff of inspiration. I was 64 the day of that finish at Smathers Beach. I’m 65 today. This is my life. Who’s going to tell me what my limitations are? Nobody.
Third: “It Looks Like a Solitary Endeavor But It’s a Team.”
Never in my wildest imagination could I have achieved my lifelong Dream without my Team. They were smart, some of them world-class in their fields. They were passionate. And they were devoted. It started with Bonnie Stoll, my Head Handler, who was my Rock, the Team’s Rock. Each and every one was sterling in dogged preparation, in ideas toward our evolution over the years, and in laser focus to do each task perfectly every inch of the way across.
An embarrassment of accolades and opportunities have come my way during this past year. I am both humble and grateful day after day. But what I’m living these days was best expressed by Henry David Thoreau:
“What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become.”
I never set out on the Cuba quest to break records, to seek inductions into Halls of Fame. That was all left behind in a different phase of my life. My beautiful Dream, the Cuba Swim, and all the epic effort it took to physically and mentally do it, was supposed to teach me those life lessons I uttered through my fogged brain on that beach last year.
I like to think I live those three lessons out loud, every day. As for the next Xtreme Dream, that’s in the works. But this time Bonnie and I are going to get a MILLION of you to do this one with us. Stay tuned.