• photo by Miami Herald

Diana Nyad The greatest distance swimmer the world has ever seen refuses to let a dream drift away

“In order to attain the impossible, one must attempt the absurd.” - Miguel de Cervantes

Every epic work of literature has, at its heart, a seemingly impossible conflict to resolve. And as we are all the heroes of our own stories, it is our mission to search for that conflict, even if we are unaware of its existence. If we don’t, we haven’t lived our life to the fullest.

Diana Nyad came to that conclusion as she turned 60 years old. Her athletic legacy had been etched in stone over three decades ago.  After the dream of swimming in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City drifted away, Nyad chose to seek out a bigger dream. Leaving the pool of sprint racing behind, she waded into the waters of marathon swimming. In the 1970s, marathon swimming was on the furthest shore of competitive sport. “People had been doing it for centuries,” Nyad says recalling her first efforts in the sport. “It started with tribes of people staring at the top of a mountain or across a body of water and asking themselves. ‘I wonder if I can make it to the other side?’”

The sport has come a long way since those days, Nyad says. “It’s not like it used to be, where you would win a race in the Bay of Naples and have a drunk Italian stranger hoist you on his shoulders and carry you around.” During those days, Nyad was a graduate student at NYU. She would dash off to far away places to compete in marathon swims and come back virtually anonymous to the United States. It was then that a friend suggested she try something close to home to put the sport on the map.

At age 26, Nyad set her sights on swimming around the island of Manhattan. “I did my research,” she says. “Guys had been doing it since the early 1900s, but no woman had ever done it before.” Nyad not only succeeded in completing the swim, she did it in under eight hours—a record for any swimmer, man or woman. Her achievement received national attention. She began to dream bigger.

“I sat in my Manhattan apartment with nautical charts spread out all across the floor,” Nyad remembers. “I wanted to swim 100 miles in the open water. And then it hit me like a ton of bricks.” It was elegant in its simplicity, grand in its intentions, and self-admittedly egomaniacal in its purpose. “If you draw a straight line from Cuba to the Florida Keys, it’s 103 miles,” Nyad says. “It couldn’t have been better. This country that is so close to us, that has been closed for so long.  It was a chance to bring our worlds closer together.”

On a Sunday afternoon in August of 1978, Nyad hopped into the waters of Ortegosa Beach in Cuba. Swimming inside a 20-foot-by-40-foot steel shark cage, she powered her way through the open water, stroke-by-stroke, for nearly 42 straight hours. By Tuesday, eight-foot swells of water slammed against the cage, pushing Nyad farther off course. She had covered nearly 76 miles, but she wasn’t heading directly toward the Florida coast.  The distance left to cover was too great and the conditions too difficult. The doctors supervising the swim pulled her out of the water, like a referee waving off a game fighter who has taken several blows too many. Best to live and fight another day.

The following year, on her 30th birthday, Nyad attempted to set the distance record for an open swim by crossing the 102-mile distance from North Bimini Island, Bahamas to Juno Beach, Florida, this time without the shark cage. When she completed the swim in over 27 hours, she became an even greater media sensation. The record eclipsed any distance swim that any man or woman had ever attempted. And at the peak of her athletic prowess and worldwide fame, she was done with swimming. Done.

“All swimmers burn out,” Nyad says. “All those years of swimming 100 meters, then the distance swimming. The ratio of training is higher in swimming than any other sport. If you’re a 100-meter swimmer, you’re in the pool six hours a day. You’re not running six hours a day if you’re a runner. And there’s a tremendous amount of sensory deprivation. Your eyes are covered. You’re not looking at nature. You’re not talking to anyone. There’s something that can be meditative to that, but it’s the loneliest sport in the world. After I set the 102.5-mile record in the Bahamas, other opportunities started to happen. I started to work with ABC and Wide World of Sports. I was 30 years old. It wasn’t like I hated swimming. I felt like I had accomplished what I wanted to accomplish. I felt at that time, you couldn’t pay me a million dollars to swim another lap.”

The athlete never left Nyad. Despite a burgeoning media career, she would often take her bike out for 100-mile rides. But short of splashing around in a pool from time to time, for three decades she was true to her word. She never took one stroke in the pool in the name of training or competition. At age 60, having lived as a non-swimmer equally as long as she had as a swimmer, she began to think about the bigger picture of her life.

“Turning 60, I never had a problem with age,” Nyad says. “I never worried about the cosmetic aspect of aging. But it hit me like an existential angst. What little had I down with my life? I became choked up with how little time was left. My mom had just died; is it all going by like this? You start thinking about life experience and how much of it is a treasure. You take a deep breath and it’s over. When I speak now to 15-year-old kids, I tell them ‘You don’t know how fast it’s going to go by.’ I’m finding the sixties to be quite a time. In almost every aspect of my life, I’m better! I wanted to feel alive and awake and pursue something that required extraordinary passion, and an unadulterated commitment. I just had no idea that is was going to be swimming.

In July of 2010, the thought became crystal clear to Nyad. If she was indeed better at many of the things in her life, could she go back and complete a long-forgotten dream—the swim to Cuba? It was the only world-class swim Nyad had every failed to complete. “I didn’t know if my shoulders would hold up,” she said. “But my heart and will are going to be there. My mind is so much stronger now. I’m going to catch that old dream, that extreme dream. Honestly, still, deep down I cannot quit on that dream.”

Nyad began training quietly on her own, spending several months in the pool. She quickly regained her steady swimming stroke, lap after lap, repeating in her mind from a jukebox of several dozen songs she keeps in her head. She then went to Mexico to complete two long swims of six and eight hours in the open water. She was ready to give her renewed dream a try.

But 100-mile swims in open water require more than an incredible athlete with a huge heart. Nyad had to assemble a crew of nearly 50 people and five boats for the attempt. It required fundraising to cover the costs of the attempt, but people were rejuvenated by Nyad’s passion.

Nyad convinced the Cuban government to allow her entire team to come to Cuba to launch the attempt—perhaps a greater feat than the swim itself, and something only Nyad could likely accomplish. In August of 2010, once Nyad’s team felt the weather and currents were favorable enough to make her attempt, she set out to realize her dream.

She stood on the shores of Cuba looking over the horizon, unable to see to the other side. As Nyad looked into the horizon, she asked herself the same question that others asked centuries before her. “Can I make it?” She thought about the shoulder pain she would endure. The potential hypothermia. What it would feel like to vomit if she swallowed salt water. And the sharks, jellyfish, and other creatures of the sea curious about a human invader. But the dream was too great. To truly live, you have to redefine impossible.

Hour after hour, she swam in a steady, mechanical stroke. To pass the time in the water, Nyad invented things to occupy her mind. She used counting systems—first in English, then in German, then in French. In the dark of night, she would repeat The Needle and the Damage Done by Neil Young in her mind over and over. She would mark her distance passed by the time of the songs in her head. 

After 28 hours of swimming, she was nearly halfway to the States when she suffered a severe asthma attack and had to abort the attempt. A month later, she tried again, but she was stung several times by box jellyfish, perhaps the most painful sting a swimmer can get. “I expected Portuguese Man of Wars and other things, but the Box Jellyfish from the southern waters, I never imagined.” The stings felt like boiling oil on her skin. The venom from the jellyfish made Nyad feel paralyzed. Her stroke began to slow down considerably.

Her medical team gave her epinephrine, prednisone shots and oxygen, and she continued to swim for hours enduring pain that would floor an athlete forty years her junior. But the stings slowed down her stroke. Her breathing system became compromised, as she was unable to take in the oxygen to fuel her swim. The currents began to change for the worse. She had to abort the attempt.

Nyad was so disappointed by her failed attempt, she thought perhaps it wasn’t meant to be. “It’s a bear of a stretch to swim.” Nyad says. “It’s just not any 100 miles. You have to contend with Mother Nature. Then there are sharks. There are those damn jellyfish. There are eddys out there that are incredibly tricky. Even if you are in the best of shape and have a strong mind, it’s not a certainty.”

Discouraged, Nyad threw her swimming gear away. Before the sanitation collectors could cart them away a few days later, she retrieved her goggles and caps from the garbage. The dream wasn’t meant to die.

In 2012, she tried again. Again, the jellyfish stings created havoc on the attempt. A lightning storm forced Nyad off course. The dream was on hold again, but still, it refuses to die.

Since her last attempt, Nyad has spoken in front of thousands of people, many of them kids or people in their later years, inspired by her quest to write the chapter in her life she wants to write on her own terms. It’s the failure to accept failure that brings standing ovations at every speaking appearance.

Will she try again in 2013? “I definitely think so,” Nyad says, though she admits that many of the members of the crew will likely be different and that’s ok. “It’s not their dream, it’s mine. But if I can inspire people to get off the couch and to live their lives, it’s greater than any swim could ever be. I recently spoke to a group of fifth graders and one of the girls was wearing an “Extreme Dream” t-shirt. I asked her, ‘What does Extreme Dream mean to you?’ She said, ‘Well, it’s something that’s impossible, but it might just be possible.’ I couldn’t have said it better myself. I can swim from Cuba to Florida, and I will.”

 

Postscript: Nearly one year after this story was written, Diana Nyad set out one last time to fulfill her dream. On September 2, 2013, after swimming 52 hours, 54 minutes and 18 seconds, the 64-year-old Nyad walked unassisted onto the shores of Smathers Beach in Key West. FL after swimming 110 miles and shattering every record for distance swims without a shark cage in the process. She never let her dream drift away.