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 published in Reader's Digest Magazine November 2011

In August 2011, the day had finally arrived, and there was Nyad, looking north from the shores of Havana.
It had taken two years this time just to get to the beginning — there had been money to raise ($500,000 altogether), a team to recruit and manage, a morass of visas and permits from two governments to secure. In 2010, weather postponed the swim, and in 2011, she had waited all summer for the right conditions.

“I’m almost 62 years old, and I’m standing here at the prime of my life,” Nyad told reporters the evening of August 7. “When you reach this age, you still have a body that’s strong, but now you have a better mind.”

Then she leaped feetfirst and plunged into the water wearing only a black swimsuit, a bright blue cap, and light blue goggles; she spurned a wet suit because neoprene adds buoyancy and refused a shark cage because the boats pulling the cages pull the swimmers too. (In 1997, an Australian swimmer, Susie Maroney, made the Cuba swim in a shark cage in 24 hours. Maroney’s more than four mph pace — about double Nyad’s speed — is judged by many in the swimming community to be artificial as a result.)

To deal with the shark risk, two kayaks trailing Nyad were equipped with a Shark Shield, which emitted electrical pulses that created a kind of protective fence around her. The support boat, which led a flotilla of four other boats, had shark divers who would jump in when Nyad would tread water to eat or drink (two universal rules of marathon swimmers: You can’t rest by putting your hand on the boat or be touched by anyone on the boat). She also had to contend with Portuguese man-of-wars, creatures that look like giant jellyfish and haunt the sea’s surface, killing their prey with lethal venom. But she didn’t think about these things. A swim like this required all kinds of organization, including a particular kind that took place between her ears. Her mind would span topics. She had memorized a long list of songs, including the complete works of Bob Dylan and of Neil Young.

“I looked forward to going through all the mental tricks that I had developed over the past two years, counting [strokes] and singing,” Nyad said in August. “But I never got there, because I was so engrossed in my physical distress.”

About three hours into the swim, Nyad felt a sharp stab of pain in her right shoulder. She changed the angle of her stroke, talking herself through each one and telling herself to go gently until her hand caught the water, and then she’d pull and feel the pain shoot through the joint. The suffering went on all night and into the next day.

In the 17th hour, she swam over to the boat, requesting Tylenol. The crew located a pain reliever with a foreign label. Nyad took it, and a short time later, asthma — which she’d never been prey to in the water — made her airway lock up. She lay on her back in the water, gasping for air. The doctor jumped into the water with an inhaler. Nyad rolled onto her belly and continued swimming, and then she’d turn on her back again, gasping, unable to fill her lungs. She swam into a half-mile-wide field of jellyfish and got stung all over her body. Next came nausea, vomiting, dry heaves. The idea of accepting defeat on these terms enraged her.

“I’m trying to make it,” Nyad told Bonnie Stoll, according to Steven Munatones, who was on the support boat as an independent observer. “I’m barely going forward. I feel so sick.”

“You’re making it,” said Stoll, who was also on the boat as Nyad’s head trainer. “You’re going forward.”
Between the 23rd and 27th hours, Nyad had gone just five miles.

“This has been my dream forever, but I can barely make it another hour. I’m just dead,” Nyad told David Marchant, the boat’s navigator.

“You have nothing to be ashamed of,” Marchant told her.

Cold, exhausted, and sick, she drew closer to the boat. Stoll saw that Nyad was suffering and wanted to comfort her. But it was up to Nyad to make the decision.

“OK, Diana, I’m going to touch you, and it’s going to be over,” Stoll said.

Nyad consented. And with that, 29 hours and 43 minutes after she’d leaped into the water off the rocky Havana coast, the swim came to an end. One boat measured her distance at 56.8 miles, the other at 53 miles.

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