Mary Ellen Bernard

Writing a Musical is an Endurance Sport

I was thrilled to hear that Annette Bening and Jodie Foster are Oscar and SAG Award nominees for their roles in Nyad. I’m a huge fan of these two marvelous actors, so I would have checked out this movie for them alone. But I had another reason not to miss it. The film follows open-water swimmer Diana Nyad, as she chases her dream of traversing the treacherous waters between Cuba and Florida. 110 miles of open ocean.

I had the privilege of meeting Diana when I worked as Editorial Assistant at womenSports magazine in the late 1970’s. She was one of several women athletes who visited our offices, and she added her own brand of octane to the glorious high-energy, high-estrogen work life that constituted my first job out of college. What a place to be at the height of rising feminism.

So, when I saw the movie, I knew about this swim, and I had seen The Other Shore, the documentary that chronicled it. But seeing this story now, when I’m finding my own way through a long stretch of open water, had a special kind of impact.

The physical feats of athletes are usually what impress us, understandably, but it’s the mental fortitude that fascinates me. It’s what enables them to handle the physical torments. Diana endured exhaustion, sunburn, jellyfish stings, cold, hunger, seasickness. Through it all she continued. Stroke. Stroke. Stroke.

I have my own Holy Grail. Around 15 years ago I got this idea to write a musical. About as crazy a notion as swimming 110 miles. When I started, I was already beyond the age at which I could be called “an emerging artist.” But I began. Research. Write. Edit. Re-write.

Some days I’m gung-ho. Some days the currents are against me, and I slow to a crawl. But it’s my passion, my compulsion, my Cuba swim. Write. Edit. Re-write. Get feedback. Get discouraged. Stroke. Stroke. Stroke. I’m not yet on the other side.

Diana Nyad, however, does finally reach her goal. After 52 hours and 54 minutes of unaided swimming, she staggers onto the beach in Key West, her journey completed. It was her fifth try. Her first was at age 28. She was now 61. She spent 35 years trying, failing, trying again.

When she steps on shore, dazed, shaky, but upright, she has some words for the crowd: “One is, we should never ever give up. Two is, you’re never too old to chase your dreams.” I lost it. She was speaking directly to me, I decided. Of course, we find something of ourselves in everything, I guess.

But then I read Diana’s tenth-anniversary narrative about the swim – swims, plural, that is – in which she commented on her own words: “When I said ‘we should never ever give up’ on Smathers Beach that afternoon ten years ago, I wasn’t speaking to swimmers, or even athletes. I was speaking to all of us, all of us looking to live our lives as large as we possibly can.”

So, I heard her right. You’re never too old to chase your dreams. Stroke. Stroke. Stroke.

PHOTO: womenSports staff members with Diana Nyad (sitting) celebrating the 1977 National Women’s Conference. That’s me standing center.