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.
On Labor Day 2013, fittingly, athlete Diana Nyad, 64, became the first person to swim from Havana, Cuba, to the Florida Keys without a shark cage. “If you say to yourself ‘find a way,’ you’ll make it through,” Nyad said from Key West on Tuesday. Her previous four attempts at the more than 100-mile feat fell short due to injury or weather. In an exclusive interview with Reader’s Digest on the eve of her second attempt in 2011, Nyad said, “I don’t think any ocean swimmer has ever been this prepared physically or mentally.”
Under the pale light of a half-moon at midnight, Diana Nyad’s agonized groans carried across the water to her support boat 18 feet away. The vessel drifted on the choppy surface, and her crew looked on, hoping she’d rally and find light on the other side of this darkness.
It was August 10, 2011. Though Nyad had instructed her 11-person team of navigators, doctors, and trainers not to tell her how many miles were left in her epic swim, the facts were as stark as the night that lay ahead. Nyad had been in the water, stroking arm over arm, turning her head to breathe once every second, for more than 20 hours. She was dozens of miles into her quest to complete a 103-mile swim from Cuba to Key West, Florida, but still closer to the start than the finish.
Because of the currents in the Florida Straits, Nyad would have to last 60 hours — if everything went perfectly. So far, hardly anything had gone right.
“We got a forecast of nice, calm, light wind, but that didn’t happen,” Nyad recalled later. “We had rough seas all over the place.”
The waves swelled. Her chest was corseted by asthma; her shoulder was injured. She had swum into a field of jellyfish that made a meal of her and covered her skin in a rash of painful welts. She was cold and nauseated. Even her goggles kept fogging. There were 50 more miles to go to reach land and 5,500 feet of ocean beneath her, and she was digging even deeper than that into her own soul just to keep surging forward. All these numbers and measurements to process. And one more: In two weeks, she was going to turn 62 years old.
Jeffery Salter/Chuck FadelyAs 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.
She may have been out of the water for the next three decades, but Nyad didn’t stray far from adventure. During the 1980s and 1990s, Nyad was an announcer for ABC’s Wide World of Sports, covering three Olympic Games. She wrote a memoir, a fitness training guide for women, and a biography of an NFL player; she delivered dozens of motivational speeches and wrote for the New York Times and Newsweek. In 2001, Nyad became a contributor to The Savvy Traveler program on Minnesota Public Radio, making trips to Borneo, Bali, and dozens of other countries.
Four years later, Nyad and longtime friend Bonnie Stoll, a former professional racquetball player, founded bravabody.com, a website devoted to providing exercise advice to women over 40.
“Too many women we know are ashamed of their bodies,” the pair wrote on the site. “We intend to lead our generation into the empowerment of feeling strong, free, and confident in every aspect of our lives.”
For Nyad, the company’s mission statement took on new meaning in 2010 when she announced she’d be attempting the Cuba swim again.
“The Straits of Florida has always loomed in my imagination,” Nyad said in June. “Growing up in Florida, I felt that Cuba has always had a mystique.”
And though she had lost some of her sleekness and speed, she believed when she announced her rematch with the Cuba swim that her age offered advantages for pushing through the rigors of a 60-hour swim.
“Physically, I’m stronger. I weigh a lot more,” Nyad said after a training swim in Key West in June. “I was a fine Thoroughbred back then. Now I’m a Clydesdale. I power through, and nothing can get in my way.”
There are also mental advantages to being older, says Steven Munatones, an expert in open-water swimming. “What you lose in strength and speed, you gain in focus and emotional resilience, which is something you need when you’re swimming facedown in darkness for hours on end,” says Munatones.
The second time around, the Cuba swim was about more than just setting another record — it was also about resilience with age.
“I hope older people will say, ‘I want to live life like that at this age,'” Nyad said. “Our parents’ generation considered 60 old age. I’m in the middle of middle age.”
The 30-year delay helped Nyad move past the anger that fueled her as a younger woman. “I don’t look back on my youth and say ‘What a tragedy,’ ” says Nyad. “You don’t ever get over that life sentence [of dealing with abuse], but I’ve reinvented myself to be happy, to take the tiger by the tail.”
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.
For two years, Nyad had envisioned herself walking up the beach in Key West. It had been so real in her mind’s eye that she was certain it would happen, and in the aftermath of the attempt, the disappointment was keen.
“This was my time, but it wasn’t my day,” says Nyad. “I have nothing to hang my head about in terms of the effort I gave, but it is heart-wrenching.”
And inspiring, for those who watched her fight. “It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen,” says Mark Sollinger, who piloted Nyad’s lead boat. “She just wouldn’t quit. It was more amazing to see her not make it the way she fought than if everything had gone exactly right and she’d made it the whole way.”
At a press conference in Key West less than 12 hours after being pulled — half-dead and devastated — onto the support boat, Nyad choked back tears and said, “Sometimes the will is so strong. That’s the whole point of this sport — that the mind is stronger than the body. But I was shaking and freezing, and I thought, ‘There’s no mind over matter anymore.’ I think I’m going to have to go to my grave without swimming from Cuba to Florida.”
But when Nyad returned home to Los Angeles, the pain began to fade. In its place, a familiar ambition crept in; the mystique of that fickle 103 miles of water sandwiched between Cuba’s rocky coast and Florida’s sands still beckoned, even as she celebrated her 62nd birthday.
“Something says to me the goal is still there,” says Nyad. “The big fairy tale is [still] there.”