Are we right to regard athletic achievements as heroic, or is that a sign of a culture that has lost its moral direction in waist-high hyperbole? One hears the word “awesome” often in reference to things that are merely convenient or satisfying. Even attorney ads seem overblown – perhaps especially attorney ads, Bar regulation be damned. Don’t even get me started on the Super Bowl hype, even though I loved every minute of it last year when the Ravens won in the Super Dome. Reasonable people can and perhaps should stand aftward shouting “HALT” at American lexical inflation that obdures. But might Nyad be an exception to the heap of hype? Nyad risked death in her journey; she could have drowned, died by shark, died by jellyfish or other means. She had no guarantee of surviving 110 miles in the ocean at age 64, rescue crews in companion boats notwithstanding. Other performers risked death, too, though, such as the tightrope walker who walked, no net, between the Twin Towers in 1974. He was impressive and daring, but probably no hero.
So why might the term “hero” or “superhero” apply, without hyperbole, to some Baby Boomer swimmer? I don’t know that it does, but a few thoughts come to mind. Heroism does not subsist only in the cardinal virtue of fortitude, but fortitude is a core, necessary element of heroism. We take actions every day to prevent loss of life – paying attention to the roadway and putting the damn cell phone down, for example, saves lives but is not heroic it requires de minimis self-discipline. Heroism, and specifically the fortitude necessary for heroism, are rare.