09/20/2013 09:04 am ET Updated Nov 20, 2013

A Little Bit of Diana Nyad in All of Us


I know it's a bit late to be commenting on Diana Nyad's cross-ocean swim, but watching the coverage of her finish a couple of weeks ago put me into a tailspin of thinking about athletics, and more specifically women and athletics. I grew up an athlete my entire life. Although my early days were spent on the sidelines of the soccer field picking flowers, I soon evolved to the hyper competitive eight-year-old who would throw a temper tantrum after every loss in recreational basketball games. Thankfully, I've found out how to control my tantrums -- excluding a few embarrassing competitive moments that I'll leave out of the sake of my own self-confidence.

Sports made me who I am today and even though I think about that every day, I've never really been able to evaluate why. I've never taken the time to pinpoint why being a girl and being athlete were always so one in the same for me, and still are. That was until I started looking into Diana Nyad and her history and I came across this quote from her:

"I am interested in the unknown, and the only path to the unknown is through breaking barriers, an often-painful process."

This was why I was an athlete. I always wanted to know what my physical boundaries were and the only way to find them was through undergoing an extremely competitive and painful process. It may be twisted, but I think anyone who really wants to push the barriers of the unknown has to inhabit a sort of twisted mind, right? If not, everyone would just succeed to the highest level possible without any hesitation and, for better or for worse, we all know that doesn't happen.

But Diana Nyad did it. She succeeded to the point at which she could consider herself complete. And this is not only enviable but totally inspiring. She pushed through the unknown to find out what she could do and that's what being an athlete is all about. Nyad's swim made me particularly thoughtful about a girl's role in athletics in this day and age because I felt so connected to her journey as a woman, not just an athlete. I thought about the time that she grew up in, a time when women didn't play sports. This made me feel so lucky to have grown up in a time when being an eight-year-old girl was completely synonymous with basketball, or soccer, or tennis, or whatever your poison was. I can't imagine my life without being an athlete, it's always felt like an inherent part of me. Young women my age have people like our mothers and like Diana Nyad to thank for that.

Athletics gave me a sense of self and a sense of responsibility. As Nyad said after her swim, "It looks like a solitary sport, but it's a team effort." There are individual components to any athletic activity -- you must push yourself to the point of vomiting, feel your muscles quiver until they collapse, and analyze your inner thoughts to rid yourself of any negativity. However, the larger part, the part that really sticks with me as an adult now, is the ability to be a member of a team and feel a loyalty and obligation to others. When you're an athlete you're a part of a whole -- even in an individual sport there is community.

I can't quite pinpoint why I felt so affected by Nyad's swim, but I know that feeling something that deeply about someone's accomplishments must mean something. In trying to do some inner analysis into why I spent hours staring at the TV watching her interview on repeat it basically came down to one fact -- I want to be like her. I want to be 64 and pushing myself just as hard as I did when I was 20. I want to accomplish something in middle age that seemed impossible in my teenage years. Whether I can see myself swimming across open water from one country to another is still a gamble, but I want to keep training my mental stamina so that even if my physical capabilities seem to fall short, I can still feel like an athlete on the inside.

Anyone who has competed at a high level knows the amount of concentration and focus it takes to reach your goals. These kind of competitions have not only taught me how to find that focus and concentration, but also how to set goals for myself. I still consider myself 100 percent an athlete -- I can't go to a spin class or to lift weights at the gym without feeling an intense, and often misplaced, sense of competition, but I'm not on a team in the traditional sense anymore. High school and college have ended and the days of sleeping with three other girls in a hotel bed before a race have gone with them. Yet, I formulate my goals about my career, my personal life, my personal fitness, as I did when I would look down a race course at the finish line -- the most tangible goal there is.

Life is less tangible now, and that's okay. There aren't clear winners and losers, there aren't set workouts for how to find your path through life. However feeling that little bit of fire breathing under me when I see someone accomplish something that I'm confident I can too, or finding the focus needed to finish a project or meet a deadline come from those same nerves that stirred when I would gear up for a game day. Game days have evolved, the physical pain is (sometimes) less, but the stamina is still necessary, mental or otherwise, so when it comes down to it, I, like Diana Nyad and millions of other girls out there, am still an athlete, and I take pride in that everyday.