Diana Nyad, In Her 60s, Keeps Making Swimming History
In 2013, Diana Nyad swam 110 miles from Cuba to Key West, Florida, at the age of 64. She was the first person to complete the swim without a shark cage to protect her. It was the fifth time she attempted the swim over a span of 25 years. In fact, she first attempted the feat in 1978 at 29 years old.
In her new book, “Find A Way“, Nyad talks about the competitive drive that kept her going and allowed her to accomplish a historic goal, even in her 60s. She also talks about overcoming personal hurdles, such as sex abuse at the hands of a swim coach, and the all-too-human process of aging.
She talks with Here & Now‘s Robin Young about her record-breaking efforts, and how she keeps making history.
Book Excerpt: ‘Find A Way’
By Diana Nyad
The chanting begins in a gentle chorus and grows to an adrenaline-fueled frenzy. Our voices emanate from the dock at Marina Hemingway in a resounding boom, sweeping over the cobblestoned streets of Old Havana, wafting across the sea toward faraway U.S. shores.
The Xtreme Dream Team is thirty-five strong. We are huddled. Closest to me in the center is Bonnie. And Candace. And Mark. And John. They are my lifeline.
I yell. The cadence falls in:
“Where we swimming FROM?”
I pump it up a notch:
“Where we swimming TO?”
We are giddy with faith. Our secular version of a religious revival, the congregation chanting in a fever. We are as one. This will be Our Time. Our collective passion catapults us into an altered state of zeal. Our voices pump through the humid late afternoon of a sultry day in Havana, September 23, 2011. We are believers.
The crew scatters to their respective boats while I return to the hotel room. They need to be through customs and waiting for me to swim out of the mouth of Marina Hemingway Harbor in two hours.
I go back to the silent rituals. Hydrating. Yoga. Stretches. Deep breathing. A meditation of calm and focus. I am talking to myself, very slowly. I inhale with one syllable, exhale with the next, imbuing my brain with the mandates of this possibly impossible endeavor, this endeavor that drives my life force:
Take every minute, one at a time. Don’t be fooled by a perfect sea at any given moment. Accept and rise to whatever circumstance presents itself. Be in it full tilt, your best self. Summon your courage, your true grit. When the body fades, don’t let negative edges of despair creep in. Allowing flecks of negativity leads to a Pandora’s box syndrome. You can’t stop the doubts once you consent to let them seep into your tired, weakened brain. You must set your will. Set it now. Let nothing penetrate or cripple it.
I visualize pulling on a titanium helmet before the first stroke. This is my will. This strength of mind cannot be diminished. We think, after our two failures, that we know every possible roadblock that can emerge to thwart our journey, yet it is truly a vast, unfathomably powerful wilderness out there. This is a swimmer’s Mount Everest, the great epic ocean endeavor of our blue planet. It’s never been done. Strong swimmers have been questing across this ocean since 1950. No one has made it all the way across unaided.
You can do this. You will do this. The mantra takes on a rhythm with each breath, through the toe touches, the shoulder rotations. The body is warming, loosening. The mind is steeling. The spirit is reaching its necessary, indomitable plateau.
Bonnie and I, silent together in the austere, Communist Hotel Acuario room, go about our business. I have a blanket spread out on the floor. Neck circles, hamstring reaches, trunk twists. I drink a few ounces of water in between each exercise. My robe is ready, goggles in one pocket, cap in the other. Yet I still check to see they’re there, neurotically, over and over. My suit is hanging on a hook next to the robe. The surreal feeling is coming on. I am ultra-aware of the molecules of oxygen traveling with each long sip of air to the bottom of the solar plexus, then the carbon dioxide inching back up toward my lips. The folds of the robe, revealing the words “Fearless Nyad” across the back, appear as a million puffs of fleece and cotton I’ve never noticed before. The cool water streams down my throat as if drop following individual drop. Bonnie’s voice every few minutes is a steady, low-register, checking in. Monosyllables. We don’t need to talk. It’s all been said. We’re ready.
Candace pays me a soulful last visit. I’m the lucky one. Two lifelong best friends. Candace’s touch imparts a wave of calm as she lays her hands on my shoulders, my neck. She is breathing slowly, deeply and that makes me take on her rhythm. She settles my nerves. She heads off to her boat, assures me she’ll be there every stroke of the way.
The golf cart shows up at four forty-five p.m., right on time to take us to the start. Bonnie and I sit close. Silent. We know our friendly driver, Jorge. He doesn’t say a word. He understands. The significance of the moment is palpable. When we come around the corner and see the ocean, we share the surge of hope simultaneously and dare to exchange a knowing glance. It’s flat as glass. The reflection of clouds stands still on the surface, all the way to the horizon. We know better than to imagine we will have sixty hours of this perfection. Or thirty. Or ten. Or two, for that matter. But for this moment, the vision of this calm washes over us like fairy-dust magic, perhaps an omen for many hours of smooth swimming ahead.
My “big bear,” my dear friend El Comodoro José Miguel Escrich of Havana, and my cherished friend from Mexico, Kathy Loretta, our Xtreme Dream Cuba Ops Chief, are waiting for me at the rocks. The start will be a plunge off the boulders that line the mouth of famous Marina Hemingway, where Ernest Hemingway himself fished, drank, and told bon vivant tales, where the Kennedy clan and Sinatra’s Rat Pack and Mafia dons partied many nights away on luxury yachts before the Revolution of 1959. The place shimmers with textured fables, which is of course a big part of the allure of this crossing. The natural rock wall, first buttressed to protect this island country from pirates and invasion, has by now kept Cubans in as much as it has kept others out. To swim all the way from one nation to another, from this particular forbidden land to my home country, to fully comprehend the lives of so many Cubans who left this very shore, in makeshift rafts in the middle of the night, speaks a compelling drama. Apolitical as I am, it’s a drama written by impactful events that has always gripped me.
This passage, considering the powerful Gulf Stream, with its attendant eddies and countercurrents, the particular dangerous animals lurking beneath, is unlike any other hundred-mile ocean crossing on Earth. Were you to spread out the nautical charts of all the globe’s equatorial waters, those warm enough for a swim of this length, you simply couldn’t find a more challenging hundred miles for a swimmer. This stretch, Cuba to Florida, is where Mother Nature rages. We all, the Cubans and our Team alike, grasp the gravitas of the occasion. History extends across the sea before us.
The Cuban press corps is lined up in full force, their cameras set up in a sweep along the rocks. The beautiful royal-blue stripes of an oversized Cuban flag stretch strong and proud across the start area. Our five boats stand sentry off the rocks, along with a number of Cuban boats that will escort us out to international waters, twelve miles off the coast.
As I step down onto the flat rock area, the Team roars: “Onward! Onward! Onward!” Bonnie and I pump our fists toward them.
Bonnie begins the smearing of grease as I get the cap and goggles ready. I answer a few polite questions from the press, the lengthy questions having been handled at the press conference earlier. These are simply a few of the “How do you feel?” “Are you heartened, to see the calm sea in front of you?” “Will this be the last time?”
Fair enough. This is my third attempt. Will this be the last time? Of course this is the last time. But I did say that twice before.
The overwhelming scope of the quest tugs me away from all this immediate activity for a minute. I am sixty-two years old now, no longer the cocky twenty-eight-year-old who stood here all those years ago, not so evolved. I know only too well what monumental Nature lies out there.
The big picture, the Dream still alive after all these years, takes over as I look toward that elusive horizon. The enormity of it all wells within: the outrageously extreme training sessions, all the knowledgeable, dedicated people who have stuck with me. The epic crossing carries profound meaning for them, too; it’s not just me. We shared heartache on the first two failures, the first thirty-three years ago and the second only six weeks back, both times very difficult to accept on the heels of such mammoth efforts. Yet pride swelled in our chests from the bravery we showed, the professionalism of the expeditions we put together. It’s all huge for me right now. The panoramic perspective stuns me, takes me up and away from these solid rocks. It’s in my soul, this Cuba Swim, far and away more than a mark of athletic endurance. This crossing has come to emblemize all I believe in, my worldview. Reaching stroke after stroke toward this particular horizon is my version of Browning’s reaching for heaven. The vision of it, the planning, the training, the unwavering belief in the face of overwhelming odds—this swim demands and defines the person I want to be. The person I can admire. But the depth of it all—it’s too much for this moment. There will be plenty of time, on the other side at long last, for soulful contemplation. Right now I need to take that first stroke, to get a rhythm, to start the work.
We hear of football players pausing in the tunnel before running onto the field for the Super Bowl, tennis players waiting for their names to be announced before walking onto the grass for the Wimbledon Championship, track stars crouching for the start of the their Olympic sprint final. They all talk about their various tricks for calming their screaming nerves, their virtual blinders turning their attention inward and away from the outside distractions, the thirst to hit that first ball and get to the work they know so well, the wisdom to push the grand perspective to the back of their minds. I snap back to reality now. I’m back on the rocks. Bonnie is real again. I need that first stroke.
I salute the Team. No bugle this time. Low-key is our MO. Bonnie and I hug and say “Onward” quietly to each other. She gives me the nod, and I take the leap. The real leap. The metaphoric leap. In the air I say out loud, to myself, in the French pronunciation: “Courage!” After the punishing weeks, months, years of hard work, after the maddening wait for weather in Key West, now the first stroke is under way. It’s an indescribable relief.
I make my way toward Voyager’s right (starboard) side. Voyager is my escort boat, my navigation boat, my Key West training boat, my beacon for the nearly twenty-nine hours of the last attempt. I feel tremendous fondness for this thirty-seven-foot catamaran at this point. My guide. My protector. She is more than a boat to me, Voyager. She has a spirit. She’s got my back. My sturdy seafaring vessel, with her surface-level transom where Bonnie and my Handlers take such tender care of me. Her steering wheel has been reconfigured from center to far starboard now, so that Dee Brady and her crew of Drivers can keep an accurate course, dictated by our genius Navigator, John Bartlett. They need both to set the perfect course, constantly reconfiguring in small increments per John’s directions, and to keep the perfect speed, one that neither leaves me behind Voyager nor puts Voyager behind me. The Drivers need to concentrate every single minute, to position the boat so that I am directly out from Bonnie’s station. Nobody talks to the Drivers except Bartlett and Bonnie and Mark. Once I am away from Voyager, danger becomes more likely. And once I am away from Voyager, the shortest route from Havana to Florida is lost. Added yards escalate into added miles, and the possibly impossible becomes truly impossible.
John’s navigation space is at the stern, a cabin right above the Handler’s low station. I can see John, head buried in his charts, reading his various instruments, when I breathe to the left, toward the low Handler’s transom. We occasionally catch each other’s eyes. We exchange looks of solidarity, sometimes while I’m stroking, sometimes while I tread water during the feeding and hydration stops. John can talk to Bonnie and her crew right out the navigation cabin window. He can jump up onto the deck to talk to Mark Sollinger, our Ops Chief, and the Drivers and all other crew on board.
The Shark Divers take their sentry positions way up top, on the roof. The visibility of dark shadows below in the daytime Gulf Stream from up on that roof is as far as half a mile, with deep ocean views, so they feel confident they can handle any shark well in advance of it poking around close to me. Nighttime is a different story. We use no lights of any kind at night. Lights attract jellyfish, and bait fish, and then sharks. With no moonlight, the situation we are facing tonight, you literally cannot see your own outstretched hand. The Handlers know I’m still there, twenty-one feet to the right of Voyager, solely by the slapping of my hands on the surface. The only people who actually see me in the pitch-black night are the two Kayakers on duty, the electronic Shark Shields tethered to the bottoms of their boats. The paddler to my right needs to keep that Shield very close to me, within three feet, in order for it to cast its elliptical field wide enough underwater to be effective. Another paddler, with another Shield underneath, is right behind me, alert to stop quickly if I stop quickly. These first two are in formation out by Voyager. The other four paddlers are back on their mother ship, resting and ready to take their next shifts, two by two.
Bonnie has been transported from the start to Voyager and has snuggled into her transom perch by the time I get there. I am warning myself over and over not to let this glassy sea seduce me into any fantasies of it lasting very long. I’m just trying to cruise, not push, as the early-going excitement is making me feel like a million bucks. The temptation is to click off some fast miles, use this dead calm to push forward while we’ve got it. Push the stroke rate up a bit. But a pro knows better. One must settle into the pace that is viable for the long haul. Draining the body a bit now, to cover more ground while it’s flat, will not serve us well later, when every ounce of reserve energy will be called upon.
Excerpted from Find a Way by Diana Nyad Copyright © 2015 by Diana Nyad. Excerpted by permission of Knopf. All rights reserved.
- Diana Nyad, author, journalist, and long distance swimmer. She tweets @diananyad.
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