What Diana Nyad and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Teach Us About the Ethics of Heroism

Heroes inspire.

Maybe that is why we keep looking for them in all the wrong places. A recent Newsweek column, “The League of Fallen Idols,” references Roger Clemens’s perjury mistrial. We celebrate superhuman performance on the playing field, the mountains of the Tour de France, the court, and on the green. And the reality is that superhuman performance around winning often has been an illusion.

Recently, I’ve been struck by two examples of a heroism that does inspire. Long distance swimmer Diana Nyad and NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. have both come up short this month in the prize department, but offer examples of how to persevere through disappointment, undiminished in search of a goal.

Earlier this month Nyad failed to achieve a dream she’s held onto for more than 30 years; she’d focused her training around it for the last two years.  Her Cuba to Key West swim had to be aborted midway because of a severe asthma attack lasting nearly 12 hours and wracking pain in her shoulder.

She said after being pulled from the water: “I wasn’t the best swimmer I could be — the asthma and the shoulder made sure of that.”  She continued: “I was my most courageous self.”

Nyad said she believed the sea and weather conditions were favorable to her swim, and that she had trained and strengthened her body to peak shape, celebrating what she had achieved at almost 62 years of age. “I thought this was my time.”

She said of her experience: “I was the best person I could be … that’s the message. I dug down, I dug deep … Whatever you’re doing, do your job well.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. says he doesn’t dwell on his losing streak. The son of NASCAR icon Dale  Earnhardt, killed in a race 10 years ago, Earnhardt approaches his racing with respect for his dad’s legacy and an ethic of wanting to be known as someone who acted right, who was honest, and ran his car well.

It has been more than three years since NASCAR’s most popular driver has won a race. Earnhardt has run out of fuel in the last lap, had a wheel come off, overheated engines, crew mistakes, bad tires, flawed pit strategy, driver error and been caught in others’ accidents. Through it all he has kept an upbeat attitude and a commitment to do his best to win. But his sense of winning isn’t just about him: he’s also given up a chance for first place in order to draft a teammate in a better position to come in first.

In the inevitable interviews after a near or far miss, Earnhardt doesn’t do PR spin. He calls it as he sees it, seeing himself a part of a larger whole – no entitlement, no excuses. And on to the next race, practicing harder, figuring out what he has to do to improve. For him, each race is a new chance.

And for Nyad, part of the purpose of her swim was to invite the world to re-think age, reconsider what it means to be 62. She did that. Her reaction three weeks after abandoning her swim was pride in her effort, but given the two years of training, she admits to feeling cheated as an athlete and isn’t sure what she’ll do with that.

No story book endings because the ending is always being written as long as the human spirit propels itself through the disappointment, an inevitable part of reality, to the next thing.

That’s a definition of heroism that has enduring inspiration.

Gael O’Brien      August 30, 2011

The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine; in a recent column she writes about Ohio State University’s handling of a football scandal

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2 Comments on “What Diana Nyad and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Teach Us About the Ethics of Heroism”

  1. Alicia Gee Says:

    Do you think it was better for Dale to call it as he sees it?

  2. Gael O'Brien Says:

    Hi Alicia, thanks for your comment. Dale Jr says what he thinks — we know where he stands — when he does badly, he owns it; when others have contributed to a problem, he shares that. So what we get is his point of view without PR spin, or defensiveness. That is refreshing.


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