What Makes Athletes Like Diana Nyad Strive?

Good Morning America
What Makes Athletes Like Diana Nyad Strive?

View photo

What Makes Athletes Like Diana Nyad Strive? (ABC News)

In the hours before Diana Nyad completed her record-breaking swim of more than 100 miles from Cuba to Florida, her team blogged that she was "really hurting" and that her lips and tongue were swollen. But she didn't stop.

Psychologists and sports experts alike agree that there's something special about Nyad that's pushed her through the ocean for more than 50 hours as she made her way to Key West.

"It is a very high level of confidence," said Kathryn Olson, CEO of The Women's Sports Foundation, who knows Nyad personally. "It's not a confidence you and I might have in our ability to do something. It's a confidence so deep that it conquers."

Read more about Nyad's journey.

Nyad, 64, swam the distance, which is 35 miles more than anyone has ever swam before, without a shark cage, according to her website. She's attempted the feat four previous times, and had to stop in 2012 because jellyfish stings burned her face and limbs.

"There's the thrill actually of accomplishing something very few people would do," said Judy Kuriansky, a psychologist at Columbia University's Teachers College, better known on the radio as Dr. Judy. "There's both an inner satisfaction and also the thrill of everybody else saying, 'I would never do that.'"

Kuriansky, who has never met Nyad, said she wondered what Nyad's childhood was like. People who accomplish extreme athletic feats usually were either praised for their over-the-top accomplishments early on in life or they were "scaredy-cats" as children and want to prove themselves as adults, she said.

After learning that Nyad began striving for the Olympics as a young girl but was sidelined at 17 with endocarditis, a virus in her heart, Kuriansky said she thought the goal of swimming from Cuba to Florida was more internal than external for Nyad.

"This is a personal conquest for her over her body and to push her body," Kuriansky said. "It's about survival because her body was broken. That's a very interesting thing that she's had a disability, and she's overcome it."

It also takes a certain level of persistence to keep going when your body is tired and in pain, Kuriansky said, adding that she knows it well. She's climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro.

"Something inside you just takes over," she said. "You train your mind to be absolutely determined. It's both for yourself and to prove yourself. You will do it despite all odds."

Athletes who take on grueling efforts learn to focus on something other than the pain or, in Nyad's case, the fear of a shark attack, Kuriansky said. They do not think about failing, and sometimes put themselves in a "bubble" of faith in their ability to accomplish their goals safely.

Ann Rosen Spector, a psychologist with a private practice in Philadelphia, said there are thrill-seekers in almost any sport who take on risky challenges willingly, constantly amping up their goals. Even people who have been injured and return to a football field or a basketball court do it because they like being the one on the team to play through an injury.

The amount of training and determination it takes to meet a difficult goal also says something about an extreme athlete's ability to sometimes go without short-term happiness in favor of long-term satisfaction. These people will often pass on hanging out with friends and relaxing in favor of training because their goal outweighs their need for immediate pleasure.

"Not everybody has that kind of stick-to-it-iveness," she said. "It has a lot to do with how some people need to be gratified in the short term."

Olson said she has no doubt that Nyad's training was hard, but Nyad also spoke and wrote about how the dawn light on the water was so beautiful that it carried her forward.

"It's not all pain," she said. "There's a lot of joy."

View Comments (7)

Recommended for You

  • Justin Bieber Says 'I Really Love' Hailey Baldwin

    People have been speculating about Justin Bieber’s relationship status with model Hailey Baldwin ever since he posted an Instagram photo of the two smooching to ring in the New Year. Justin hasn’t yet confirmed if their friendship has turned romantic, but he told GQ magazine that the two are quite…

    Good Morning America14 mins ago
  • New Video From Iranian State TV Appears to Show US Sailor Crying While Detained

    New video broadcast on Iranian state TV today appears to show a U.S. sailor crying while briefly detained by Iran in early-January. The video released by the Islamic Republic of Iran News Network appears similar to footage aired at the time the sailors were detained, a U.S. Department of Defense…

    Good Morning America14 mins ago
  • Carole King's Landmark Album 'Tapestry' Was Released 45 Years Ago Today

    Today marks the 45th anniversary of the release of Carole King's classic album "Tapestry," which established the prolific singer-songwriter as a major solo star. Throughout the 1960s, King had churned out hit after hit for other artists with her husband and songwriting partner, Gerry Goffin, but…

    Good Morning America18 mins ago
  • 'Family Feud' Contestant Speaks Out About Her Hilarious Repeated Answers

    In the greatest “Family Feud” fail to sweep the Internet, contestant Sheila Patterson's responses have gone viral with more than 1.3 million views as she struggles to come up with other ways to say “mother.”She continues to repeat answers already provided by her siblings, eventually driving host…

    Good Morning America40 mins ago
  • NTSB Considering Investigation Into Royal Caribbean Cruises' Weather Troubles

    The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board is considering a possible investigation into events surrounding the storm that rocked a cruise ship off the Carolina coast and forced it to turn around. Royal Caribbean Cruises’ Anthem of the Seas left New Jersey Saturday headed for a week-long trip to…

    Good Morning America41 mins ago
  • The Elderly Being Conned Into Trafficking Drugs

    Floridian Ralph Soles, 74, said he was caught transporting methamphetamine into New Zealand two years ago. “I lost a lot,” Soles said. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CPB) announced today an investigation into the scam for the first time and…

    Good Morning America48 mins ago
  • Hundreds of Manatees Huddle Together in Florida Spring to Escape Winter Cold

    Hundreds of manatees have gathered together in a Florida spring to escape the winter chill, drawing scores of visitors. While there are believed to be more than 1,000 manatees currently gathered in Kings Bay, the headwaters of the Crystal River in Florida, most of the animals are crowded together…

    Good Morning America57 mins ago
  • Asia McClain Speaks Out About 'Serial''s Adnan Syed

    Adnan Syed was convicted in the 1999 murder of his high school ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee, who was found strangled in a Baltimore park. At age 17, Syed was arrested and later sentenced to life in prison. In an exclusive interview with ABC News, Asia McClain explained why she is speaking up 17…

    Good Morning America
  • Leonardo DiCaprio Is the Reason This Star Will Attend the Oscars

    Kate Winslet said she will be at the Oscars this year because she hopes to see her "closest friend" Leonardo DiCaprio finally win. Winslet and DiCaprio, who is nominated for his role in "The Revenant," appeared together in the 1997 movie "Titanic." Although he's been nominated for an Oscar six…

    Good Morning America
  • 16-Month-Old Boy Befuddled by Sight of Dad's Twin

    Stephen Ratpojanakul and Michael Ratpojanakul are 31-year-old twins who look so much alike that even Stephen’s 16-month-old son has trouble telling them apart. Stephen and his wife, Carroll, left their toddler son, Reed, with Michael and his wife, Caryn, in their New York City apartment last week…

    Good Morning America
  • Will Smith Says It's 'Terrifying' to Raise Kids Who Aren't Afraid to Express Themselves

    Will Smith admits it isn't easy raising children who are free to express themselves. Smith got more serious when A.Dot followed up with a question about how the dad handles jokes about his son Jaden, 17, modeling women's clothes for Louis Vuitton. "There's a really powerful internal quality as an…

    Good Morning America
  • 5 Takeaways From Funny Or Die's Donald Trump Movie

    The movie is grainy and shot as if it takes place in the 1980s, when Trump's book first hit store shelves. This movie comes on the heels of Trump's big win at the New Hampshire Republican presidential primary last night. Howard adds that Trump was mad that Monday Night Football was broadcast…

    Good Morning America
  • 8-Year-Old California Boy With Cerebral Palsy ‘Skateboards’ With Dad

    Atticus Edmunds, 8, got his first feeling of flying down a skate ramp last month after his mom, Tresa Edmunds, saw a video on Facebook of a boy in a wheelchair being pushed around a skate park. Edmunds recruited her husband, Jared Edmunds, and the family of three went to the skate park down the…

    Good Morning America
  • Valentine's Day 2016: 5 Tech Hacks to Make It a Great Day

    If the thought of planning the perfect Valentine's Day is sending you into a panic, we have you covered. One of the biggest mistakes of Valentine's Day is giving your partner something that seems impersonal or last minute. Bad timing in the kitchen can lead to a potential Valentine's Day…

    Good Morning America
  • Twitter Is Changing Your Timeline: What You Need to Know

    The social media company, which has long shown an endless stream of tweets in reverse-chronological order, announced today it will now serve users with an algorithmic timeline that will show tweets out of order. In the coming weeks, Twitter users can turn on the feature in their settings. When…

    Good Morning America
  • Diana and The Queen's Dresses Go on Display at Kensington Palace

    Kensington Palace, home to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry, will be opening its palatial doors to a new dazzling exhibition called "Fashion Rules: Restyled." The exhibit is organized by the charity Historic Royal Palaces (HRP) and takes visitors into the wardrobes of three famous…

    Good Morning America
  • Gwen Stefani Reveals New Song Titles From Upcoming Album

    Gwen Stefani is revealing more details about her upcoming album.Stefani released a track list on her Instagram page on Tuesday, posting an image of a page of a notepad with 12 handwritten song titles listed on the page. Four red hearts are drawn underneath the song listing."This Is What the Truth…

    Good Morning America