September 16th, 2011
10:21 AM ET
Editor's note: Dr. Sanjay Gupta follows Diana Nyad while she attempted to break a world record, swimming without a shark cage from Cuba to Florida. Tune in to "Diana Nyad: Xtreme Dream" at 8 and 11 p.m. ET Saturday and at 2 a.m. ET Sunday on CNN. "Sanjay Gupta MD" airs at 7:30 a.m. ET Saturdays and Sundays on CNN.
When any of us looks back at extended-effort periods of our lives, what are we left with, other than the way in which we conducted ourselves, our display of inner character and strength, our class in facing the tough turns in the road?
Along with some 30 sterling individuals, I just spent more than two years in pursuit of a near-impossible endeavor: an epic, first-ever swim from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage. We called our expedition the "Xtreme Dream." And "Xtreme" it was.
The training alone was almost torturous. I have researched and now concluded that I did more long swims over the past two years – in preparation for the predicted 60 hours of this swim – than any ocean swimmer has ever done over a lifetime. Countless, grueling, mind-bending eight-, nine-, 10-, 11-, 12-, 13-, 14-, 15-, 24-, 29-hour marathons.
The organization was huge in scope and intensely demanding in detail. Both U.S. and Cuban government permissions were difficult to navigate. Gathering world-class experts from fields of shark protection, tricky navigation challenges, unmined nutrition and endurance precedence. The pressure of fund-raising.
In the end, not one individual I approached for assistance turned away. To a person, they all dived in and stayed with the project to the last stroke taken.
The bond of friendship. Strong personalities willing to leave their egos at the door. The natural high of all rising to act as our best selves for the greater good of the "Xtreme Dream" vision brought us not only together as a tight unit, but made us all as individuals proud of ourselves.
We were prepared for any possible outcome. I had many years of experience in swimming across oceans from my former life as a world-class swimmer in the '70s. Add to that the compiled experience of this dream team of 30 over the past two years and all our time on the water together, we were sky-high confident when we swam out of Hemingway Marina in Havana on August 7.
Nearly 30 hours later, hit by utter surprise, I finally succumbed to an intense and debilitating asthma seizure. The asthma forced me into gasping fits, muscles begging for oxygen, for more than 11 hours. We tried every possible solution to get through the crisis. But in the end, this unprecedented, unexpected wrench brought the dream to a disappointing end.
As an athlete, I was devastated. I knew I had this swim entirely within my grasp. I wasn’t even sore, not a drop of lactic acid, in my muscles when it was over. I stood in front of my team that night of August 9, after not sleeping for three days, and tearfully thanked every one of them – by then a group that had swelled to 60, by name and by specific anecdote.
I was ready for 100-plus miles, 60 hours, and had been “cheated” into only accomplishing about half that goal.
But there is more to sports than the finish line. There is a human spirit, larger than life, deeper than athletic records.
And the human spirit of this "Xtreme Dream," with me fighting that crushing asthma, my team trying every possible remedy to keep me going, was to be admired.
We were passionate players in a human drama who lived life large and grand for those 30 hours, especially those last 11. Truth be told, we lived life large and grand for the entire two-year period.
So, to come full circle in this “conversation” about looking back at periods of our lives when we don’t particularly want to embrace the end result, what do I take away from the experience, other than the athletic disappointment of not making it all the way across?
It’s like a friend of yours going through a bitter divorce, feeling the entire marriage was a waste of precious time because the relationship didn’t last. Surely you don’t spend a decade or so with someone, dedicating your care and heart, without in the end being able to savor the good times, considering it mostly time well-spent?
Well, here I am, with a body built like a granite statue, at the age of 62. Here I am, surrounded with a group of intelligent, focused, upbeat people whose passion I will never forget. Here I am, inspired by my own full-tilt engagement in life over every single moment of these past two years, ready to spend every single moment of the rest of my life similarly engaged, no matter the dream.
CNN’s documentary is a tribute to this force of spirit. I am profoundly grateful for its long-term, steadfast vision of our "Xtreme Dream" as important news for the world to witness.
And, as for the athletic dream, let’s just say that I will admit I am not at ease with the story ending as it is.
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.