The Unsinkable Diana Nyad

At 61, Diana Nyad attempted to swim 103 miles against three-foot waves, the threat of sharks, and her own demons. A Reader's Digest Exclusive.

By Todd Pitock
Also in Reader's Digest Magazine November 2011

As any long-distance athlete will say, you never know what race day holds until you show up at the starting line. In a way, the results of the event itself are left to fate. The training is all you can control.

“I don’t think any ocean swimmer has ever been this prepared physically or mentally,” Nyad had said.

For two years, this dream of swimming from Cuba to Florida had been part of her every waking hour. Suddenly — or so it seemed — she was about to turn 60, and she felt the tug of her own mortality. Having a goal, a really big goal that required a kind of religious devotion, made her feel alive.

“I wanted to be filled with commitment to the best of myself so that I wasn’t looking back later saying, What have I done with my life?” says Nyad.

So she started training for her second attempt at the record-breaking swim; the first, in 1978, ended after 42 hours, when rough seas knocked her miles off course. She logged hundreds of miles during swimming sessions lasting 12, 14, even 24 hours — warm-ups longer than the longest swims of some of the world’s best marathoners.

“There are people in this sport who train their whole [lives] for one 12-hour swim,” says Nyad. “I’ve done dozens of them. My pride comes from the discipline, from the knowledge that this mind has been strong enough to train this body this hard for two years.”

Not that extreme physical feats — or struggle — are new to her. In 1974, a 25-year-old Nyad became the first person to swim 32 miles across Lake Ontario against the current. A year later, Nyad’s 28-mile swim around the island of Manhattan made the front page of the New York Times. Jackie Kennedy called Nyad her hero.

Back then, Nyad was fighting the demons of eight years of sexual abuse by a swim coach that had started at age ten (the coach denies her claim) and nearly a lifetime of dealing with a mercurial stepfather, who “made his living as a liar and a thief,” says Nyad.

“When I swam in my 20s, I was filled with anger, and it came out in my swimming,” says Nyad. “[The water] was my safe place.”

After the failed 1978 Cuba-to-Florida attempt, Nyad called her next swim — a world-record-breaking 102.5-mile swim from Bimini, The Bahamas, to Jupiter, Florida — her “last competitive swim.” True to her word, when she touched the shore on the tip of Florida on August 20, 1979 — two days before her 30th birthday — Nyad toweled herself off, got dressed, and didn’t swim again for 30 years.

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