Long-distance swimmer inspires Middlebury College Class of 2014

MIDDLEBURY — Despite intermittent drenching rains for much of the week, the skies cleared Sunday morning for Middlebury College’s 213th commencement ceremony. With temperatures in the mid-sixties, the 517 graduates were comfortable in their black caps and gowns.
The event’s featured speaker was Diana Nyad, the long-distance swimmer who last year became the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without the aid of a shark cage.
The charismatic Nyad entertained the graduates, faculty, parents and relatives with a 15-minute speech, during which she recounted her experiences as an aspiring Olympic swimmer and later, one of the world’s top endurance athletes. But before delivering her remarks, Nyad snapped a photo of herself on stage with the Class of 2014 cheering behind her.
See a photo gallery of the ceremony here
Nyad extolled the virtues of hard work and determination — qualities of which she is no stranger. It took Nyad five tries over 34 years to complete the 110-mile journey from Cuba to Key West, Fla. Strong ocean currents, asthma flare-ups and jellyfish stings thwarted her initial attempts.
“Never, ever give up,” the distinguished swimmer told the graduating seniors.
Nyad said that she was honored to be chosen as the college’s commencement speaker.
“To stand with you today, on your special day, at this treasured American school, I can tell you means the world to me,” she said.
Nyad, 64, recounted trying out for the U.S. Olympic team, for a spot at the 1968 games in Mexico City. After a decade of training where she awoke each morning at 4:30 a.m. to swim, Nyad finished sixth in the Olympic trials and did not make the team. Yet, she said, she did not regret her failure because she performed as best she could.
Nyad said when reached the age of 60, she questioned what she had accomplished in her life. Soon, she set her sights on the Straits of Florida, and began to train for a swim between Florida and Cuba.
“It’s the Mount Everest of the oceans,” Nyad. “People have been trying since 1950 — strong men and women — and no one’s ever done it.”
After her three failed attempts between 2011 and 2012, Nyad said some of her team members encouraged her to attempt less challenging distance swims in Guam and the Maldives, but she was determined to make it to Florida.
Middlebury College Commencement Address: Diana Nyad from Middlebury College LIS on Vimeo.
Nyad said she was not interested in world records, but rather, seeing what her aging body could accomplish.
“Cuba was never about athleticism or endurance records for me,” Nyad said. “Cuba was about life and questioning myself, if I’m living the right life.”
On Sept. 2, 2013, Nyad reached the beaches of Key West after 53 continuous hours in the water.
In her concluding remarks, Nyad challenged the graduates to try their hardest in all of their pursuits, because, she said, our lives are too short to not do our best.
“I’m asking you what are you going to do with this one, wild, precious life?” she said.
LONG-DISTANCE SWIMMER Diana Nyad fired up the soon-to-be Middlebury College graduates by telling her life story.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
In keeping with the tradition of having one of their own speak at graduation, the Class of ’14 selected Economics major Jennifer Johnston as the student speaker. The Westport, Conn., resident used a walking metaphor to describe the progress she and her classmates made through their careers at Middlebury College.
The college awarded six honorary degrees; in addition to Nyad, those receiving the honor were deep-sea explorer and Middlebury alumnus Carl Douglas, vocal artist and social justice advocate Angélique Kidjo, alumnus and banker William Kieffer III, former Yale University president Richard Levin, and alumnus and former Colgate-Palmolive executive Reuben Mark.
As a class gift, the seniors donated $32,000 toward financial aid for future Middlebury students. The 2014-15 Comprehensive Fee, which includes tuition, room and board, is $58,753.
Editor’s note: Robert Keren of Middlebury College contributed to this report.

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