Swimming Lessons and Diana Nyad

Good morning and welcome back to school. A very special welcome to all of our new boys!

We all know what it is like to be new; the challenge is often about trying to read the room and understand the culture.  Some people are just better at this than others. Let me give you just one example of one man’s struggles with this:


No matter how your first few days will play out, odds are you will do better than our friend who “just got in from the airport.”

When someone asks you a version of, “How ya’ doin’?” you might immediately think about your work, about your academics, service, arts, and athletic commitments. As busy as you will be this year, though, I also hope that you will make the time to read a newspaper or magazine every once in a while. Despite our sometimes hectic schedules– we have to remember that, not only are we part of a much wider world, but education is about trying to understand how that wider world works.

With this in mind, there are two news stories that I bring to your attention this morning.

First, as a point of historical interest, you might not know that during World War 2, a number of British boys came to UCC for the duration of the war. Erick Lubbock was one of those boys. After his time in Canada, Eric returned to London and went on to enjoy a political career as a member of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Today Eric is known as Lord Avebury, and on the day I happened to meet with him a few years ago, Lord Avebury happened to be delivering a speech to Parliament on the topic of “Liberal Intervention.” (The UK was considering whether or not it should intervene in Libya at the time.)

Liberal intervention is the belief that states should actively address issues or concerns in other states’ affairs. Think of it as being the opposite of isolationism.

I was reminded of Lord Avebury last week when I learned that the British government was again debating this issue. Because it is alleged that the government of Syria violated international law last month and used chemical weapons to kill hundreds of its own people,  the British Parliament  debated whether or not the UK should intervene in Syria. (The isolationists won the vote.) The US Congress is engaged in a similar debate today.

Because it is such an important question, I think we should examine this issue here at UCC. We need to ask ourselves: Are there occasions which require us to interfere with what is going on in another country? What obligation do we have to those who are victimized by their own government? What role should international law and the UN play in all of this? Are there effective ways of responding to crimes against humanity that can deter future abuses without themselves causing even more death and destruction? And because there are terrible things happening all over the world on a far too regular basis, how do we decide when we should and should not intervene? Upon what basis do we make these kinds of life and death decisions?

There are no easy answers to these questions, but I hope you will read about and think deeply about the situation in Syria, so that you can engage more fully when we debate the issue in the not-too-distant future.

The second story is much, much less serious and a bit more up-lifting. You may have heard about the 64 year-old woman who broke a world record by swimming from Cuba to Florida this past weekend. Here is a clip:


Diana Nyad offers us 4 lessons:

First, it’s important to take advantage of good luck. Last weekend Nyad was fortunate to have good weather and a good current. But neither would have mattered if she hadn’t first decided to jump into the water.

Second, success requires us to pay a price. For this attempt Nyad trained ferociously for 4 years because swimming 110 miles would require her to swim for 2 days and 2 nights.  She couldn’t just show up and hope for the best.

Third, Nyad learned from mistakes.  She had tried this swim before, but in the past, she’d been stopped by sharks, jellyfish, storms, asthma, and by the turbulence of the Gulf Stream. This time she had a pulmonologist on her team to help with asthma. She also utilized an effective anti jellyfish ointment, and she was aided by shark divers who came equipped with special zappers to keep sharks away from her. Again, she didn’t just get lucky. She was disciplined, and she executed a plan.

Finally, what’s most obvious and most important is Diana Nyad’s incredible grit. Over the last 35 years, she had tried this great swim on 4 other occasions. How badly do you think she wanted to do this? Can you imagine training for anything for 3 and a half decades?

So what does any of this mean to you? You probably aren’t contemplating a 110-mile swim any time soon, but you are about to start a 10-month journey that will make great demands on you. It is a long and sometimes exhausting trip. It can be joyous, of course, but there will be moments when it will feel like quite a slog. There will be mornings when you’ll want to stay in bed, nights when you will want to call it a day, and days when you just won’t want to push yourself any further.

On top of this, you will face your own storms, jellyfish, and sharks. You will endure tough weather and bad currents. Throughout all of this, though, I hope you will remember Diana Nyad’s example of preparation, of disciplined effort, of pure determination.

More than that, I also hope that, even through the salt water, you will see that you are surrounded by shark divers: teachers, advisors, coaches, mentors, and perhaps even an administrator or two, who are all deeply invested in your success. While they may not have special zappers at the ready, they do have what it takes to help you keep the sharks at bay. In different ways, with different words, and certainly with different accents, these will be the folks who, unlike the Jersey boys in the bar, are genuinely concerned when they ask, “How ya’ doin’?”


4 thoughts on “Swimming Lessons and Diana Nyad

  1. Well said Jim! I love Diana Nyad as an example. Might be borrowing this with our seniors. Will attribute you, (maybe). Happy new school year!

  2. Outstanding…a Power Point Top Ten. I wish our priests at Blessed Sacrament could deliver a Jim Power homily! ” Swimming Lessons” gets framed – in non glare glass.

    Humble servant,



  3. I think that is terrific

    I really don’t have an answer for the Syrian dilemma, in part because an ideal course of action does not exist.

    I do not believe that one should exist on the extremes. I do not believe that one should take on a isolationist view of the world because then the terrible atrocities by men who for whatever reason, like Hitler, would go unchecked.

    At the same time though, I am hesitant to enact a form of liberation where a country becomes involved in another country’s affairs because then there is decrease in independence, which I think is an important point to acknowledge, but even more so, it presupposes that you are in fact right.

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