LEANDER SWAM the Hellespont to reach his love, Hero, whose blush, wrote Christopher Marlower, lit up the coastline. Diana Nyad and Stella Taylor had no such incentives in their marathon swims to Florida; and, unlike Leander - who made it in spite of Neptune's being on his back, so to speak - the two women fell short. Leander was mythical, of course, while Miss Nyad and Miss Taylor merely wished to become legendary. They may have failed, but they won our hearts.

Actually, there's no "but" about it, since failure in trials like these is more heart-winning than success. Nobody cares if Evel Knievel fails to fly over one more bus, but Miss Nyad and Miss Taylor are in a different league. There was a distance, and there were two people. The size of the distance was a given, but the size of the people had to be proved. We follow such events avidly because we live them ourselves. There is a distance, and there are "we," going against the tides and sharks.

Of the two performances, Miss Nyad's was the more vivid - that photo of her tearful face, her mouth painted with medication; the accounts of the blisters in her cheeks, and her tongue swollen from jellyfish stings. She sobbed as she was pulled into the escort boat. Miss Taylor was more readily resigned to giving up, but there was something especially compelling about her. Trying to swim 100 miles at age 46 is different from doing it at 28 (Miss Nyad's age).At 28 you believe the shore will come to you. At 46 there's less surprise when you fail, but no less disappointment, so you endure for deeper reasons.

In any case, here's to them both - and to all the other swimmers, balloonists and mountain climbers - who conquer our imaginations. Florence Chadwick, the world's most famous marathon swimmer, once said the "life in the water is less complicated"; yet the effort is the same. Like Leander, Miss Chadwick also swam the Hellespont (then the Dardanelles), though not to prove her love. She simply proved the size of human will, and so, in defeat, did Miss Nyad and Miss Taylor.