Life Lessons from Diana Nyad?
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on September 12th, 2013
The below is a guest post by psychotherapist Jeanne Safer PhD, a thoroughly Kaizen TI student taking weekly lessons at the TI Swim Studio in New Paltz for 10 years. This article was originally published at the Psychology Today web site, where Jeanne has just begun writing regular essays on the psychological revelations possible through doing swimming as a practice rather than a workout. It also appeared in Huffington Post.
After Diana Nyad completed a 110 mile swim from Cuba to Florida, even President Barack Obama joined the congratulatory bandwagon. The president (or more likely a 20-something aide in a West Wing cubicle) sent this tweet shortly after Nyad arrived in Florida “Congratulations to @DianaNyad,. “Never give up on your dreams.” 

Yet I had personal reservations about whether there were lessons for the rest of us in how she approached this quest. Jeanne Safer mirrored my feelings in her post.

Diana Nyad and Swimming Torture: Must the hellish ordeal be our athletic ideal?
On her fifth try, 64-year-old endurance swimmer Diana Nyad recently became the first human to complete the 110 mile swim from Havana to Key West, without a shark cage for protection. She did it in 53 hours, vomiting repeatedly, neither ravaged by jellyfish nor being eaten, and earned universal acclaim as well as congratulations from President Obama, who tweeted her “Never give up on your dreams.”But even though I am impressed by her achievement and her indomitable will, her attitude of grim determination sounds more like a nightmare to me.

She speaks of the ocean and its perils as though it were her personal enemy, her private torture chamber; she proudly exhibits her battle scars. “Swimming,” she told The New York Times  “is the ultimate form of sensory deprivation,” and sensory deprivation is a particularly fiendish type of agony.

How about sensory enrichment? Why must we idealize suffering in athletic performance, focusing singlemindedly on the goal rather than the experience, as though seeking pleasure in the activity itself shows a lack of serious commitment, and diminishes rather than enhances or gives meaning to any feat?

The ordeal mentality guarantees that the only possible gratification is reaching the goal through suffering, and swimming seems particularly prone to this masochistic ideal. Not surprisingly, Nyad is a practitioner of distracted swimming. She has an internal repertoire of 85 songs, mostly Beatles hits, which she hums continuously, removing herself psychically from what her body is doing.

Not even amateur swimmers in chlorinated, sharkless indoor pools are exempt. The same attitude prevents them from experiencing the unique delights of moving through water; “grueling” and “boring” are adjectives many use to describe swimming. That’s why any pool is full of people with waterproof iPods strapped to their goggles to help them get through their requisite number of laps before they can escape onto dry land. “If only there could be a television at the bottom,” one told me. Rare is the college swimmer who swims for pleasure later in life. For these people there is little joy—let alone transcendent experience—in moving with power and grace through another element. Their only goal is to swim faster or get it over with, and how they do it or how they feel is irrelevant.Why bother? As a passionate amateur swimmer myself, one who has no desire to race and who swims exclusively for the joy of it, I hate to think what they’re missing.

There is another way. My coach Terry Laughlin, founder of Total Immersion Swimming, has won 6 national open water championships in his 50s and 60s, participated in a relay of the English Channel, and writes about his adventures in the spirit of joy and self-discovery in his blog.

“Discover your inner fish” is his playful but serious motto, and lifelong improvement is his only goal. His technique emphasizes the mindful experience of every stroke, even in daunting conditions. He believes that he gains something even when he loses, and his joy in what he calls the “water dance” is infectious. Grim determination is not the only form of determination.

Here’s what the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy has to say about the archtypical ordeal by sea, Odysseus’ 7-year trek from Troy’s battlefields to his island home in Ithaka, and the necessity of seeking meaning—and even spiritual and sensual gratification—in the voyage rather than the destination:

When you set out for Ithaka
hope that the journey will be long,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them…
you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you…
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out

She has nothing left to give you.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
that you will understand what all these Ithakas mean.

(after the translation by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)

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33 Responses to “Life Lessons from Diana Nyad?”

  1. Alan W Perez says:

    Thanks Jeanne for sharing what I’m sure is a reflection in sentiment from scores of others who have come across, been captivated by and now enjoy “the journey” thanks to TI!
    I’ll have this in mind today on my 2.4 mi. Loop in the LI Sound, not for competition, but because I so love swimming towards a setting sun and then looking over my shoulder as it ‘falls’ the rest of the way, ‘escorting ‘ to my exit! Corny but I don’t care, the sensations and challenges are fulfilling!

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  2. patrick Quinn says:

    Jeanne touches on something essential not only in athletic exercise, whether it be yoga or caber tossing, something that makes a walk in the woods enjoyable, or a swim in an alpine lake, even in a muddy creek. I just returned from the funeral mass for a man who loved to ski, cook, sculpt paint and talk, who climbed to Everest base-camp, walked up to Macchu Picchu, climbed much of Mont Blanc and many many times trekked up Mount Marcy. He found spiritual and aesthetic joy in the sheer bodily involvement in these pursuits and his life conveyed that wonderful
    possibility to many who knew him. He embraced life in all of its forms.

    He was not a swimmer, as far as I know but he would have found deep sympathy with Jeanne’s perspective. I felt the same way after reading of Diana Nyad’s amazing achievement as Jeanne did and I asked myself, would anyone even think of trying it after reading the account of her years long struggle. Terry has a delightful take on open-water swimming. It takes me back to the youthful joy of just running freely through the woods, running effortlessly and flowing with the shifts of light and sound and wind. Trouble is that as I age I need ear plugs and nose clip and goggles for swimming, even in open water. I, too hum old melodies as I swim but it is hardly enough, so now I just try to listen to my body as it feels the water differently than before.
    The inner fish is there still looking for less stress on the fins.
    Thanks to Terry and Jeanne for reminding us of something more important than missions and medals.

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  3. Norm Siever says:

    RE Diana Nyad: What a whale of an accomplishment. I’m talking about singing 85 Beatle tunes. Contrary to some skeptics, there was nothing fishy about her record swim without a shark cage. Hey, doing it with a cage would be quite a feat. After all, Obama and Putin met three times without a cage. The porpoise of this email is to reveal two things I do while swimming. Having recently learned Italian, I count laps: une, due, tre, quattro, cinque, …. I also get in touch with my inner funny fish. I recently got a job as a fisherman. Just for the halibut. It’s reel good work and I get paid scale, but it cost me a fin to join the union. I can’t explain it, but humor just comes to me when I am swimming. Sometimes I get so up to my gills in comedy that I have to stop and write the stuff down, else I forget. My pool guy has been acting funny lately, so maybe he’s putting special chemicals in the pool. Terry: I have been hooked on TI swimming for over ten years and your method is a stroke of genius. Research has shown that jokes do not throw off body balance or create turbulence. I hope I have not created waves by revealing my “mind judo” methods of dissociation. Happy funny laps.

    Norm Siever

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  4. Moira Horan says:

    Great read, Jean. This sums up my feeling about her endeavor also:

    ”But even though I am impressed by her achievement and her indomitable will, her attitude of grim determination sounds more like a nightmare to me.”

    My motto has always been “If its not fun why do it?”

    Hope our paths cross again soon!

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  5. Caronis says:

    Thank you Jeanee for articulating my thoughts better than I could have done. I’ve been thinking about Diana’s swim even before she “completed” it on her fifth try. On her 4th attempt I had heard that she was having convulsions, hallucinations, etc. and I found that very disturbing. It calls into question the whole point of doing sport feats like this to begin with. If it’s for money and fame, then I can understand it. If it’s for the sake of health, then this is the very opposite of a healthy pursuit.
    The slogan of her swim has been, “Never Give Up!”. Since I tend to be a contrarian, I have to scrutinize this to really flesh out the meaning. I do agree that many people tend to get frustrated and give up on their goals and dreams too prematurely. However, there are times when it takes courage to know when to call it quits. I believe that the most successful people are very dogged in their determination, however, their secret is knowing when to alter course, change their plans, or even to cut their losses and quit while they’re still ahead.
    I remember there was a debate back in the 80’s over a Triathlete named Julie Moss who completed a Ironman Triathlon. She was collapsing near the end and was being helped to her feet in order to complete the race. She lost in one of the closest finishes ever and became a hero to some because of her “Never Give Up” mentality. There were some who criticized the idea of helping someone to their feet who appeared to be in the midst of a heat stroke with their brain frying and who probably needed medical attention. It calls into question the whole idea of sport because this is not healthy.
    Let me give just one example of an athlete who also had the “Never Give Up” attitude. His name is Korey Stringer and he was a football player with the Minnesota Vikings. During training camp in 2001 he showed up perhaps a little out of shape and on the heavy side. Other players were razzing him because he was struggling and unable to go through the training camp without throwing up and nearly passing out. To avoid the taunting, he had a “Do or Die” attitude and “Never Gave Up”….well…he died of dehydration and heat stroke…..
    So…if you want to swim to the point of puking and nearly drowning, you’ll be a hero to some but not to me.

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  6. Panama says:

    When I run, I see things, different things, when I bike I see more things at a faster pace. When I swim I see the exact same thing. I am a visual picture type of person. I love swimming, but after 30 minutes I can not take the boredom anymore. That is the point where my fun meter has stopped. However, I never get bored while running (unless it is on the track or treadmill).

    I am sure we can develop a kaizen sport of “Watching the Grass Grow” but I choose not to compete.

    I am with Diana, boredom is the most grueling sport there is.

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  7. Grant Hall says:

    There are many paths to the top of the mountain. The wonderful thing is that the choice is ours. Thanks Jeanne for elucidating this awareness.

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  8. William says:

    Excellent observation about the dichotomy between accomplishing a goal and being in the moment. However I think Diana did express some enjoyment from seeing sunrise over the horizon. And in a way singing Beatles songs may be a form of meditation, mindfulness similar to Buddhist Monks chants. Being mindful does involve taking the pulse of how the body feels and just working through it softening the rough edges.

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  9. Deb Brudvig says:

    Personally, I don’t aim at suffering in any endeavor but it happens in life anyway. If Diana’s choice is to conquer self, or a mission, or whatever, via hard work and suffering, as we view it–well, that’s her choice. Each soul has it’s own journey. So I’d just be careful about sounding like we judge her from a greater place of wisdom. Enlightenment–is different strokes for different folks.

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  10. Gail says:

    Panama, you are reflecting the problem with where you are swimming. The pool is the treadmill or spin bike of swimming, get outside and experience the journey of swimming to a place or where you see fish or reef, it is like your run, and your bike, it is about the journey, not the destination. In the pool I burn out fast after a summer of open water swimming, it seems to be stuck in a fish bowl of chlorinated water feels like a trap again, but I switch to technique and begin my focus inwards, instead of on the black line on the bottom of the pool.

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  11. Bonnie says:

    Hero worship…., why not enjoy life ?
    Dr. B., Ph. D.

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  12. Winter writer says:

    I heard Nyad speak twice..moved to so so by wanting to hear what someone my age had to say about challenging oneself. I found her scary, maniacal even. In the end I do not care if she cheated a bit or swam clean, I find no inspiration in her words or actions.

    Now, if i could swim with the two guys above it would be a different story, especially into the sunset as the full moon rises this coming week.

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  13. Chris says:

    I have somewhat mixed feelings. My longest swims are 2.4 mile ironman swims, so I can’t really comment on channel swimming.

    I do however run ultras. This year at Western States I hit an extremely low point and probably would have quit if not for my pacer. Ultimately I recovered and finished. My perspective 2 months later is that while there were extreme lows, there were extreme highs as well and the experience was worthwhile and one that I would repeat. Even during the low points I did not ‘disassociate’ from the experience.

    But I think all of this has a limit. As I write this, I have a friend attempting 30 ironman’s in 30 days. While I don’t find any value in stumbling around in a stupor for 30 days, it apparently has meaning for some, and they do redefine human potential.

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  14. Robin Hoare says:

    There is also a negative value to this admittedly remarkable accomplishment. Most people don’t swim, can’t swim and if swimming is presented as something that only the super-fit can succeed at (which occurs when one watches Olympic races) or those with iron determination, as in Nyad’s case, it makes the average person feel that it’s certainly not for them.
    On the contrary, a couple such as us in their 70s having fun swimming as well as they are able and trying to use TI methods should surely make people feel that they should have a go themselves.

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  15. Celeste St.Pierre says:

    Well said Jeanne. It is a long way to swim, but the point of life is to not “check out” and miss it, but to “check in” and ” be all in” to experience it.

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  16. i have often compared the way we swim with the Industrial Revolution version of living. Linear, cause and effect. No pain, no gain.
    There’s not much i can do about the lane dividers, but i try my best to swim when not too many other people are in the water. I was a lifeguard for 15 years at Jones Beach on Long Island, and we used the “porpoise” to get out to a victim quickly. It’s basically pushing off the floor(bottom of the pool) and then diving back down and doing it again. It feels great.
    i’m a dancer as well. So i love to just move my body thru the water with no great need to move forward fast. Watch a whale or swim with the dolphins and you get a sense of how they have fun in the water. Our arms are like fins.
    My fantasy/goal is to get a pair of those mermaid fins they make and learn how to swim like a merman. And ideally, do it in the ocean with some dolphins.

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  17. Jeanne says:

    I totally agree with all that you say and it is my philosophy in swimming and other sports….
    BUT I just want to make one point and that is that I hope we’re not all piling on Ms. Nyad because she’s a female and will criticize males who do athletic performances like this in the same way.

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  18. Mike Kearney says:

    If you don’t feel like you are being held safe in the arms of your maternal element – if it doesn’t feel like the nearest thing to flying a human can achieve without artificial aids – then you are not doing it right……..

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  19. Carla says:

    It seems that sheer determination in swimming is missing a great deal. The wonderful feeling of moving your body through the water and feeling the joy of everything working the way it should is what it’s all about. Blessings to those who have Ms Nyad’s determination, but I just don’t get it. Swimming is pure joy for me. I would hate to mess it up.

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  20. Saad says:

    I am glad others share my opinion on the subject as I was starting to sound a bit cynical… Swimming for pure enjoyment and continuous improvement is a long journey, we all have our personal objectives and follow different paths in most cases. I admire the spirit of goal achievement however I do not share the “never give up” motto as I find it very dangerous and may lead to irrational behaviour in most cases.

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  21. IanG says:

    Ms. Nyad had barely touched shore when the “experts” in the marathon swimming community began their attacks on her swim. She was a fraud, a cheat…and by implication so was everyone else associated with her swim.

    Then this line of venom began to lose its luster. A favourable current was indeed in play despite what one swimmer stated that her “friend the oceanographer” had indicated was not possible. It seems more and more likely that Ms. Nyad and her team are ethical and do deserve credit for an enormous effort.

    So now , with this article, we are told that ” yeah , ok, she did do the swim” but it was not worth doing because she did not have the right mind set. Please.

    I am a TI swimmer and hope that I use mindful practice for a more joyful experience than Ms. Nyad had…but remember…her swim…her method ..her journey..her choice.

    Those islands she landed on were not mythical, they are the Florida Keys.

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  22. Great read Jean. I always seem to question the motivation of the ultra distance athletes whether it be swim or run – why??? Although I don’t understand experiencing pain thresholds for the sake of pain only, I’ve never been in their situation and there may be a zen like state the ultra athletes experience that we non-ultra folks never will. Just as we experience our “inner fish” and others don’t. Singing a repertoire of Beatles songs may seem like only a distraction to many, but it may be equally a zen like focus that keeps one calm and on task. Just like us TI swimmers use focus points and not be overwhelmed by too much complexity. I think it’s fair to say that as we much focus on a specific task, it is in of itself a distraction from over-thinking or taking on too much at one time. I once mocked swimmers that used the iPod in the pool. My first thoughts were they were only using music to distract them from the task at hand in order to swim thousands of yards, ignoring sensory perception that’s so important, especially in swimming – until I tried it myself. I tried out the waterproof ipod at the insistence of one of my students; it was an eclectic mix of Gershwin, Linda Rondstat, Mozart, Lynard Skynard (the same student loaned me their waterproof iPod), I experienced a sensation I was not prepared for. I heard things in the water I’ve never heard before, bubbles passing my ears, and the sound of recovery entry was much more pronounced, my kick, and I discovered I could actually hold a single focus for close to 500 yards. AMAZING experience. I now use music often and recommend my students to use it as well. And it doesn’t have to be on tempo. So at risk of being cliche’, don’t be too quick to judge until you’ve walked in one’s shoes, or swam in one’s suit, or listened to music while swimming. Give music and swimming a try, I think you will be pleasantly surprised.

    Jeanne: I have been surprised at the swimming community, specifically the marathon swim community, quickly dismissing and finding any reason to discredit Diana Nyad’s incredible accomplishment. I’ve read characterizations from cheater and lier (including her crew) to self serving media whore – and I’m sure there’s many more. Pretty awful stuff that I’m sure if Diana were a man, would never be said. So yes – is it more about a woman accomplishing something a man hasn’t and the insecurity that follows? Tough one to answer, but I can’t help but be curious too. We’re all responsible for our own perceptions, but I also know perceptions can take on a life of their own, and the later sure seems to be the case with Diana Nyad. Her post Cuba-Florida swim mantra, “Never give up; You’re not too old; It takes a team” doesn’t sound all that self serving. If there’s ever a reason or rationale (at my ripe age of 51) to do a channel swim or something I feel way beyond my reach, it will be largely due to Diana Nyad and her incredible crew

    Stuart

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  23. Kay Hoogland says:

    As I’ve been told many times, run your own race. And I think Diana Nyad has swum her own swim. Endurance swimming is not for me, but I appreciate Nyad’s determination. Even if it was for “publicity” or “fame,” she deserves applause and respect for accomplishing a seemingly impossible feat. As for me, I swim for fun, beauty, and grace. I just did a sprint tri with friends this morning, and my only regret was that the swim didn’t last longer. I was having fun and enjoying it all the way. That’s why I love TI.

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  24. John Bohannon says:

    I swim because everyone can’t do it. I swim to prove to myself I am not a quiter. When people say oh don’t you had that energy, I sa yes I do. I don’t sim as a phylosophy. I don’t hae Beatles songs running thru my head. Ugh. It’s fun and doesn’t have to have meaning. I am proud of nyad because to do what no one else can do is just great. You do what youdo because care if any one else likes it or not. Sleep, eat and swim. That’s all there is to it.

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  25. Noel Olsen says:

    Terry’s blog post: “LIFE LESSONS FROM DIANA NYAD?” and guest post by Jeanne Safer “DIANA NYAD AND SWIMMING TORTURE: MUST THE HELLISH ORDEAL BE OUR ATHLETIC IDEAL?

    Since both Terry’s and Jeanne’s titles of the guest post are presented as questions, I wondered what the answers were. I believe many chosen and real life events require dedication and physical or mental endurance. There are events we choose as a challenge but there are also real life events that test us. Jeanne and Terry pose valid questions for us all.

    I need to note that I have followed the Total Immersion swim philosophy for over 10 years. Prior to finding Total Immersion, I swam to get my workout in. I thought that if I put in my time and distance I would improve. Now, I swim to improve technique. I enjoy the process rather than putting in time and distance. I believe life long improvement and being engaged in the moment are the best objectives.

    However, I thinking the nature and duration of and event have a great deal to do with how the individual tackles it. The example at hand is a 110 mile swim in challenging waters versus a 45 minute swim in comfortable waters. Is it realistic to think that Dianne should have been in a happy place or honing her technique for 53 hours in that environment? It seems to me she chose to accomplish her chosen adventure in the way she knew how to get the job done. Is not that enough for us? Do we need to diminish her for the way she chose to accomplish her goal.

    Swimming from Cuba to Florida is a choice. Life presents us with many adventure choices. The merits of various adventure choices and approaches is a fair debate. Real life also throws at many people incredible challenges that require single minded focus on the goal rather than the experience.

    I say YES – there are life lessons from Diana Nyad. I think is is clear that many life situations and events require unwavering determination and serious commitment and often without the opportunity to find fulfillment and fun in the process.

    I think single minded focus on the chosen goal does not have to be a nightmare. An attitude of strong resolve need not be transposed to “grim determination” Did not Dianne abandon 4 other previous attempts? She did not swim on to her death. It seems to me she simply pressed on to finish her goal.

    I think to acknowledge suffering is normal. I do not see where she has said we must idealize suffering in athletic performance. For example an athlete running a 10K or triathlon is experiencing some degree of pain toward the end of the race. It is choice. It is not for everybody. It is not noble, it is just a reality. For me, Diana’s swim was not a hellish ordeal just because she battled through so much. I think Diana’s swim was a good example of goal setting and achievement.

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  26. Susan Dahl says:

    TI swimming has been an avenue to bliss. Regular practice can create an inner peace that makes it possible to push limits: inner safety supplies courage for outer exploration.

    I left a job I held for twelve years. I was convinced that growth and change, and accomplishing anything ground-breaking meant getting out of my comfort zone. Three months later, I can’t say I’ve revealed my inner avatar to shine upon the world, but I did complete a half-ironman, and I didn’t know I could do that. If only I could find a parallel method for pushing myself to achieve more, professionally.

    Diana Nyad’s swim is an inspiration: she shows how to be unafraid to push oneself; that, with focus and training, you can go hard and not break. That “failure” can be “good information” to apply on your next attempt. Drill down into her personal life, sure, you’ll find trauma and tragedy, and you can even rationalize that her efforts re-enact that pain even as they transform it. But we don’t have to be “survivors” to push the limits of achievement. I believe we all share a form of existential panic that can drive similar arcs of exploration. Especially if we know we have respite in that pool/lake/river/ocean.

    Okay, now, back to pushing my limits on networking, interviewing, and independent research.

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  27. Rupertdacat says:

    For those interested in Ms. Nyad’s own thoughts on the matter, below is a link to video of a talk she gave in 2011. The video is 16 minutes long.

    http://tinyurl.com/7useg6f

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  28. charlene says:

    TI and it’s philosophy is wonderful . I personally love swimming for happiness. However, this blog seemed like raining on diane Nyad’s parade. she has different goals. let’s all reoice with her that she was able to accomplish this amazing feat.

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  29. […] swims combine exertion with meditation. Diana Nyad calls swimming the “ultimate form of sensory deprivation,” and what I remember best is […]

  30. Ryder cook says:

    She is an incredible athlete, woman, and person. To do this at an age most would agree to be impossible. To be a woman that has done something that no man has been able to do. To never give up. If you like her story I recommend everyone to watch her story at theothershoremovie.com

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  31. sridhar says:

    There seems to be some controversy between you and SHeila Taormina.. I think both your approaches can be integrated to get the best benefit..Please check out the video of POPOV …whats the limit on youtube.. There he discusses the “kayak Principle” where the contraction of one side complements the other side..this will make one look at Pulling (Sheila) and gliding (TI) together..If you find the videos useful please email me

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  32. Sridhar
    I admire Sheila T enormously as an athlete. No sense of controversy on my side. She doesn’t need to agree with the TI approach. Not everyone does.

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  33. mike says:

    diana,

    I want to get the most out of my swimming, at the moment I can do 40 metres freestyle and I am out of breath,

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