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Jane Ahlin, Published September 07 2013

Ahlin: ‘Will you still need me when I’m sixty-four?’

The headline on the blog read, “At 64, Diana Nyad Proves That Age Is Just A Number.”

Oh, bullroar. Chances are that blogger is nowhere near the age of 64. Yes, what Nyad did by swimming in open sea from Cuba to Key West, Fla. – 52 hours, 54 minutes, 18.6 seconds of continual swimming – counts as an amazing accomplishment for an athlete of any age, but the fact she did it at age 64 is crazy-unusual.

Her accomplishment undoubtedly qualifies as an age-defying feat, but the notion she “prove(d) … age is just a number” is utter hype and hooey. Sixty-four may not be 84, but it isn’t 24 or 34 or 44, either. As a friend of mine says, put a group of 60-somethings in a room and you’ll hear an organ recital – an organ recital that has nothing to do with music.

That’s not to diminish lessons to be learned from Nyad’s swim, including the fact that many of us in her age group can accomplish things conventional wisdom would suggest we’re too old to do. Admittedly, that isn’t likely to include swimming 110 yards in the ocean, much less 110 miles; however, her determination and doggedness suggest lots of ways we can choose not to give in just because age is a ready excuse.

Using one of those dreadful athletic metaphors, life’s last quarter may loom, but 60-somethings aren’t ready to be taken out of the game.

Or, closer to my area of interest, eligibility for cheap movie tickets doesn’t mean we’re headed to the theater in the retirement home van.

In an Associated Press interview following her swim, Nyad did a fist pump and bellowed, “Baby boomer power!” She earned the right to crow, although striking that triumphant blow for her demographic was far from easy. She-who-soon-must-sign-up-for-Medicare was on her fifth try when she succeeded. In fact, until last week, she was just another boomer Quixote tilting at windmills. Today, however, she’s Boomer Queen of the Big Dream, and all us 60-plus mere mortals wait breathlessly to hear her pearls of wisdom. Heavens, if she can succeed, why can’t we?

Reality check: Imagine spending 12 solid hours swimming laps in a pool, again and again and again.

Better we stick to the things most boomers have in common with Nyad, such as anxiety. In a Ted talk from 2012 – when failure still dogged her – Nyad discussed “existential angst” and torment over all her wasted yesterdays. Acknowledging that such regrets were typical at her age, she still appeared personally stunned that the majority of her life had gone by like “lightning.” In her 20s, she’d been a successful long-distance swimmer, and yet, Nyad quit swimming. She didn’t quit swimming for a while; she quit for 31 years.

When her mother died in 2010 at age 82, Nyad experienced a common epiphany for anybody entering her seventh decade and losing an aging parent: Life really is fleeting, and what is left is a fraction of what already has gone by. She found herself returning to her old dream of swimming from Cuba to Key West.

She said, “I wanted to teach myself some life lessons at the age of 60, and one of them is that you don’t give up.”

In making her living over the years, Diana Nyad has done motivational speaking, not surprisingly much of it centered on pushing through hard times and not giving up.

She says things, such as “We should never give up,” and “You never are too old to chase your dreams.”

On one level, I agree completely. On another, however, I’d suggest wisdom that comes with age helps us sort out what we should quit and what we should pursue with greater passion. Maybe the real point is to stay passionate about something.

Evidently when Nyad swims, she sings to herself in her head. In her recent victorious swim she said she sang a lot of Neil Young. But she also likes to sing Beatles songs, although she’s never admitted singing the lyrics of one of their big hits, lyrics that ricochet around in the heads of others her age: “Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m sixty-four?”


Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.