DIANA NYAD: MY OCEAN
September 2, 2013, on her fifth attempt at the age of 64, Diana Nyad conquered a 30- year dream – swimming 110.86 miles from Cuba to Florida – in 52 hours, 54 minutes and 18 seconds, becoming the first person to complete the course without the protection of a shark cage. It sits nestled between ancient boulders in the lush green foliage endemic to this region of the world, boasting spectacular Indian Ocean views and mesmerizing white sand beaches.
Diana’s illustrious career is brimming with accomplishments and accolades – but none more important or meaningful to her than her legendary swim across the treacherous waters of the Florida Straits – territory laden with sharks, jellyfish, and the dubious Gulf Stream.
After her historic swim, Diana traded in her swimsuit for walking shoes. In 2014, in partnership with her best friend Bonnie Stoll, Diana shifted focus to the obesity epidemic in America and launched EverWalk – a movement designed to spark an epic revolution to get Americans outdoors and walking. She is also a highly in-demand motivational speaker, traveling the globe and sharing her story of tenacity, perseverance and endurance.
Recently, Diana shared with Jet Linx her inspirational life journey – her childhood and early days as a marathon swimmer, why she returned to the turbulent and unpredictable ocean waters after more than a three-decade hiatus in pursuit of her dream, to her victorious swim and how she and Bonnie plan to build EverWalk Nation – bringing epic to the masses. Read on for Diana’s personal story, told in her own words.
I grew up in a warm climate – Ft. Lauderdale, Florida – and also in a milieu of world-class swimming. The Swimming Hall of Fame there attracted a number of Olympians who trained and retired in my hometown. At the age of ten, I had a geography teacher, an ex- Olympian, who told us that any kid who came out for the swim team would get an A in geography. I showed up at the pool the next day.
On one hand, I had a natural feel for the water. I demonstrated talent and rose to be the best in my events in the competitive state of Florida. As a teenager, I had Olympic dreams but the truth is I never had Olympic talent. I didn’t know until a few years later that my athletic gifts were in the realm of endurance. I didn’t know yet that I had the power to swim fast miles over the surfaces of the earth, with a steel-trap mind. Then, outside the pool, there was the ocean. That magical sea hypnotized me from early childhood days. And, just as I was starting to commit as a young pool swimmer, the Cuban Revolution went down. Literally overnight, thousands of Cubans flooded into my hometown.
We were buzzing with the mystique of that forbidden land just across our shores. I remember standing on the beach one day and asking my mother just where Cuba was. I was frustrated not to actually see it. My mother pointed toward the horizon and said: “It’s there, right over there. As a matter of fact, it’s so close that you could actually swim there.”
That wasn’t the moment the concrete dream of swimming between our two nations hatched but, in retrospect, it was the first spark in my imagination. I finished my sprint career as a high schooler, no sports scholarships awarded to women in that era. But a few years later, in graduate school in New York City, a friend told me about the sport of marathon swimming. Traveling the world, racing across lakes and rivers. The concept of traversing this blue planet of ours, swimming my way through adventures and arduous challenges appealed greatly to me.
I SIT ON A SHORE AND LOOK OUT TOWARD A DISTANT HORIZON, SO PROUD THAT THE OCEAN IS MY PLACE OF TRIUMPHS, FAILURES, TEAM BONDS, EXTREME LEARNING CURVES.Diana Nyad
And so it was that my twenties, the 1970s, became a decade of my setting records around Manhattan Island, across Lake Ontario, the Bahamas-to-Florida crossing and a host of other global swims. But Cuba was always on my mind.
Ocean swimmers have called the Cuba swim the Mount Everest of the sport. The best distance swimmers in the world had been trying that crossing since 1950. The list of obstacles out in that vast, epic wilderness between Havana and Key West is long. It’s the undeniable distance, over a hundred miles. Nobody had ever swum even half that distance in the open sea before. The mighty Gulf Stream emanates from the Yucatan Channel and screeches six times any swimmer’s speed due east above Cuba, while the swimmer needs to press north and is in a constant struggle to keep from being dragged east out into the Atlantic Ocean. Add to that huge swirling eddies within the stream, impossible to foresee, that grab a small vessel such as a swimmer into their counter-clockwise swirls.
Then there are the sharks. These are the oceanic white tips, the tigers, the lemons. They’re aggressive and fifty/sixty miles off shore, they’re hungry. A flutter on the surface, such as produced by a swimmer, signals to these animals a wounded fish. Their powerful sonar detects such low-frequency vibrations from over two miles away and they appear under the swimmer in a hurry.
There have always been unpleasant jellyfish across this stretch, mainly the Portuguese Man of War. But in more recent times, when I came back in 2010 to pursue that old dream, the deadly Box jellies were a potentially fatal foe, as dangerous as the sharks. The Box emits the most potent venom on the planet. Most people die instantaneously when touched by the tentacles. I should have died in 2011, when I swam into a swarm of millions of them, tentacles wrapped around my neck, the biceps, down the forearms. I should have died but I lived due to will. And that’s the word that drew me to this endeavor. Will. To rise beyond what is considered possible, to supersede all given limitations, defines the power of the human spirit. That was always the crux of this epic quest: the power of the human spirit.
Yes, I was always drawn to cruising across the surface of the sea. There is a high to literally traveling from island to island, shore to shore. If a basketball player sits in the rafters of a gym, in love with that span of hardwood below, where she has learned her life lessons, forged her lifelong friendships, committed her discipline, I sit on a shore and look out toward a distant horizon, so proud that the ocean is my place of triumphs, failures, team bonds, extreme learning curves.
But it’s not swimming per se that I was in love with. It was always the chasing of a goal that would demand my tapping into every drop of my potential that inspired me. People asked what replaced that passion for swimming for me, during the thirty years of retirement between trying Cuba the first time at age twenty-eight and returning to the dream in my sixties. But it doesn’t work that way. Swimming wasn’t my passion. The passion lives within my being. Every day is fire for me. I was a passionate, driven, alive-and-awake every minute of every day kid before I found swimming. I was that person during that thirty years when I was no longer a world-class swimmer. I am that person today, now that the Cuba swim is complete and I am again retired from the sport.
So I tried Cuba in 1978. The weather forecast collapsed on us. Huge waves and wind plagued us for 41 hours, 49 minutes and we at that point had no chance to reach shore. We were devastated. The training for two straight years was grueling, to understate it. I have huge respect for all sports, especially the endurance disciplines, but I would venture to say that there is no more demanding pain-plus-isolated extreme training than what extreme marathon swimming requires. If you’re preparing for a swim that may last somewhere between 50-60 non-stop hours, you put in regular 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18 hour swims. You are doing training swims that are quite literally longer than most distance swimmers ever do even once in their careers.
The 1978 failure was crushing. But the resolve to make that historic crossing was strong and we prepped again in 1979. No American visas were approved for Cuba entry that year. After a full year of training, our team turned to the Bahamas swim. Frankly, not to denigrate that Bimini-to-Jupiter, Florida swim, it wasn’t the swim of my heart, as was Cuba. It was a substitute, after getting in that kind of mammoth shape, to at least get a long swim achieved. But when the visas were closed to us again in 1980, when I was turning thirty, I responded to offers to join ABC’s storied Wide World of Sports announcing team. I retired and left my beautiful Cuba dream behind.
The next thirty years were filled with traveling the globe, following the best pursuing their excellence. Olympic Games, The Ironman, the New York City Marathon. How could I complain? On one hand, it was a thrilling way to make a living. And I always worked hard to maintain an extreme level of fitness. Always. I rode my bike 100 miles almost every Friday and had the chance to ride the length of Vietnam for a documentary film in 1998. I became a nationally-ranked squash player and was drawn to what they call “the thinking man’s racquet sport.” I started a fitness business, BravaBody, with my best friend Bonnie Stoll. Yet, except for a little splashing around in the ocean on vacation or the occasional fun boogie-boarding, I didn’t swim a stroke for those thirty years. But I did follow the few who tried the Cuba swim. And I’ll admit that, without of course wishing them any harm, I didn’t want them to succeed. It’s illogical. I was no longer a distance swimmer. But I somehow wanted the dream of being the first to make it across to remain alive.
Cuba was never just another endurance swim in my mind. All the others were tough, demanding, wonderful, worthwhile achievements. But Cuba was the stuff of grand adventure. It was history. It was the connection between two estranged nations, something important to me since my childhood right across from that magical Cuban island. And it was that possibly impossible dream that inspired me to live up to my ultimate potential.
So in approaching age sixty, feeling after thirty years of following others chase their dreams like a spectator rather than a doer, I flashed on going back to chase my own big dream. Would my athlete self, my shoulders, my will, build back to the strength of my twenties, at age sixty?
I started to train and that was a shocking, uphill struggle. Swimming at first literally only twenty minutes was all my shoulders and lats and triceps could endure. After a month, I was up to four hours at a time. At six months, I was going up and down a pool for eight hours. And I kept all of that training a secret. Bonnie and my other best friend Candace were suspicious of the goggle lines but I tried to keep them clueless by telling them I was just putting swimming back into my fitness routine.
IT’S NOT SWIMMING PER SE THAT I WAS IN LOVE WITH. IT WAS ALWAYS THE CHASING OF A GOAL THAT WOULD DEMAND MY TAPPING INTO EVERY DROP OF MY POTENTIAL THAT INSPIRED ME.Diana Nyad
Come December, 2009, I did my first ocean swim in thirty years. It was only four hours but that was the day I knew. I was going to try Cuba again. I started to put the expedition together. Bonnie took on the role of my head handler. I reached out to the genius navigator John Bartlett, who knew the tricky currents of the Gulf Stream like the back of his hand. I called Luke Tipple, an expert diver of the tropics, familiar with the behaviors of the oceanic white tips and the other species in those waters. The top jellyfish scientist in the world, especially the dangerous box jellies, Dr. Angel Yanagihara of the University of Hawaii, came onto the team. In the end, there were forty-four dedicated team members. The inner core of the team were a dozen or so individuals and the rest were the next tier of divers and drivers, medical team, and then the fleet of boat captains and crew to support the expedition.
That’s what the Cuba crossing is, a true expedition. It’s a team of impassioned individuals, dedicated to a potentially lifethreatening journey. And for each of the five attempts we made, not one team member was paid a dime. They did receive expenses. But the core group were away from their jobs, their families, for four years, in the modern times of the attempts, and dedicated their time, and their hearts, to the noble friendships we developed, to the thrill of making history by doing something nobody had ever done.
When summer, 2010, came, the entire expedition sequestered in Key West, after a year of training, in a Los Angeles pool, and then a winter ocean training camp in St. Maarten in the Caribbean, as well as some swims along the Yucatan coast in Mexico. I was strong and the team was prepared. But, as happens with Everest and the extreme alpine climbs, there was maddening frustration in waiting for the weather to cooperate. The daily easterly winds come across six thousand miles of the Atlantic Ocean above Cuba and those winds bump up against the ocean currents of the Gulf Stream, dictating rough seas out there. A swimmer needs not only the fifty-to-sixty hours to try to make it across but needs a day or two of calm on the heels of the east winds, for the seas to settle before the attempt can begin.
Training in Key West that summer, 2010, I became a neurotic mess, staring daily at the flags flapping hard. We simply could not get a break. I was ready by early June. But June passed. And July. Then August. And then September. I was freaked out to have lost my peak. We didn’t know day to day whether to go out and do a long, 16-hour swim, to maintain the peak, but risk being tired if the weather broke and we had to bust over to Havana – or to do short swims of six and eight hours, to be rested, but then risk losing the peak. Then October came, the water temperature dropped and the season was over. I can tell you that not getting the chance to try at all was more devastating that any of the actual attempts of at least throwing our best selves at it and not making it all the way.
So the training for 2011 began. People ask if I was ever discouraged to the point that I wanted to give it up. Each attempt was mammoth. The yearlong training was so darn grueling. The organization of the expedition was daunting. There was constant fundraising and getting all our people and boats and electronics into Cuba was a bureaucratic nightmare, given both the Cuban and the American governments’ rigorous clearances. But when resolve is set in one’s gut, there is no room for discouragement. I never once slept in on a planned training day. If the alarm was set for 2 a.m., to prep for a 14-hour swim that would start at 4 a.m., I got up. I never once stopped a training swim even a few minutes short of the planned time. If it was to be 14 hours and we arrived at the dock at 13 hours, 56 minutes, we would turn back and get those last four minutes.
On the four attempts, each one physically and emotionally an epic effort, I never lost that resolve. No pain, no disappointment, no realization that all the elements coming together over one three-day period seemed a fairy tale, could cut into my resolve. I was going to swim from Cuba to Florida. The quest had become a holy grail for me. An emblem of how to live life to the nth degree. No shark, no jellyfish, no wrong wind, no matter how times I failed, could deter me. I was going to get back up and try again.
There was a second attempt. And a third. And a fourth. All failures. All public. All devastating. But, like a boxer flattened to the canvas, rising with will in the eyes, we came back a fifth time. Standing on that Havana shore the fifth time, the horizon looked farther away than it had ever looked before. I admit I was both confident and scared. We knew only too well what was out there, how daunting the voyage would be. Bonnie grabbed my shoulders, looked me dead in the eye, and pronounced the words that would become the title of my memoir: Let’s Find a Way.
I leaped and the final journey began. That first day was glorious. John Bartlett for the first time on any of our crossings was giddy with our luck with the Stream. It was not yanking us due east but rather had a bit of a northerly component. I felt strong and clicked off smooth miles all day long. That night was tough. The winds came up and the silicone mask I had made, nine months of prototype after prototype, made it difficult for me to judge just when to grab a sip of oxygen through the chop of the surface. I would not have come back a fifth time without that new jellyfish protection, the mask. Every expedition is a learning curve of science and technology and we simply had to find a way through those fatal animals. The mask was the answer, to protect my face as we had not successfully done before, but it was very difficult to swim with. I was slapped with walls of sea water, started vomiting into the mask, had to stop constantly to feel for the edge of the silicone to pull it up and clean in out and try to get it back down into place. It was a hellish night.
The shark divers swarmed around me all night long. They use no lights as lights attract both sharks and jellyfish. Hence, in the pitch black waters, with no fatal gear of their own, they look for the luminescence of the predators’ eyes and swim ready with their PVC piping prepared to bash the sharks in their sensitive snouts. In other words, my divers put my life ahead of theirs. To my side and behind me, there are also always two kayakers, shark shield devices on the bottom of their boats, emitting an elliptical field of electricity below me.
Many films show the effectiveness of that shield, the sonar of a shark bothered terribly. And on the other hand, there is plenty of film demonstrating that a very hungry animal will bust right through that electric field to grab some food. The shields were the first line of the defense, but the divers swam all night long under me, in shifts of two divers each 90 minutes, as the final protection.
The next day, passing the 24-hour mark, was also choppy but, the jellyfish gear only needed from dusk to dawn, I could try to make progress all day without the mask. Bonnie and her crew whistled me over to the side of the boat much more often than usual all day. If I usually take a quick fuel break every 90 minutes, not allowed to touch the boat but rather tread water a few yards off the handlers’ station, that second day Bonnie called me over every 45 minutes. I had lost hydration and weight during the night and they were trying to replenish before that second night came.
When dusk came the second night, the jellyfish gear again on, I started to shiver. It’s the tropics, the summer sea temperatures in the mid-80’s. You are warm the first hours, almost wary of hyperthermia, having to take in a constant feeding of fluids. But after some 36 hours, the water some 15 degrees colder than your body temperature, you’re having lost weight, now you start suffering hypothermia. Each time I came in for a short feeding break, I would be shivering and Bonnie would encourage me to get swimming again, try to pump up the metabolic rate.
The hallucinations were wild and constant that night. Not only are you seriously sleep-deprived, but you are in an intense state of sensory deprivation. Your cap is sealed tight over your ears, trying to keep your head as warm as possible. Your goggles are fogged over and, with turning your head to breathe some 60 times a minute, you see almost nothing. You are immersed in the interior of your mind, almost from the first stroke. And after two non-stop days of that deprivation immersion, your mind goes into full hallucination mode. I became fixated with the Taj Mahal that second night. I saw it. Grand, majestic. I was enthralled with it and it never occurred to me that the Taj Mahal shouldn’t be floating out on the ocean between Cuba and Florida. Bonnie kept blowing the whistle, pleading with me to get stroking again. Every minute floating, not pushing north, takes us east with the stream and our destination of Florida becomes less and less tenable.
To maintain mental focus and keep the hallucinations at bay, I developed counting and singing series. Long series of numbers and lyrics to keep me alert, in the moment, ready to respond to a shark or danger signal, rather than floating away into hallucinations. I would sing a song, such as Neil Young’s The Needle and the Damage Done, exactly the way Neil Young recorded it – every guitar strum, every breath, one thousand times. Not wearing headphones, just singing in my head. I was enchanted with that eerie Young falsetto. I could hear him. And when I got to the end of a thousand renditions of that song, and I never lost count, I would come to precisely 11 hours, seven minutes.
SO IT’S AN EXTREME WORLD OUT THERE, TO UNDERSTATE IT.Diana Nyad
So it’s an extreme world out there, to understate it. That second night, cold and hallucinating often, Bonnie made an executive decision to tell me we were making it, even though we were very far from shore and any crisis was still possible. She blew the whistle signal for shark. That woke me right out of my fog. I drew my legs up tight to the body and dog paddled, no surface splash, over toward the boat. Bonnie told me to turn around and tell her what I saw. I thought she meant a shark fin. My adrenaline was flowing hard. I feathered around but couldn’t see anything. My vision at 38 hours was very poor. She urged me to lurch up and look. After a few tries, I saw it. There was a thin white line, horizontal, across the canvas of black sea and black sky. The sun was coming up. The third day was nigh. My spirits lifted, as happens for all of us with the rising of the sun. But Bonnie was emotional as she cried out: “That’s not the sun. Those are the lights of Key West!”
Illogical as it seems, having been retired for thirty years, I somehow still believed in my heart that ours would be the first expedition to make it all the way across, to see the lights of Key West. And there they were. Well, light is deceiving across water and, as it turned out, we had some fifteen more hours of swimming left. So we went back to work, all safety measures in play, taking nothing for granted. After coming this far, we were careful not to be anything but the consummate professionals we had trained to be. About two hours from shore, the palm trees now in view, I asked the team to gather around me in a semi-circle on their boats. The 44 of them stood on their bows, some of them crying. I told them that even though it was me who was about to stumble up on that other shore, after 35
years of chasing this epic dream, I asked them never to forget that we made this history together.
The rules of the sport state that you do not stop the clock until “no more sea water lies beyond.” You are not done if you are still standing in ankle-deep water. You must be on terra firma. Thousands of cheering fans had gathered on Smathers Beach in Key West. My team, along with a number of police officers, had formed two human walls, creating an entrance walkway for me up to the beach. In very shallow waters, I tried to stand and walk but my sea legs gave way and I kept moving up by swimming in only a foot of sea water. I finally tried to stand again, stumbled a bit and then found Bonnie right in front of me. She was walking backwards, her arms outstretched, guiding me step by step. We were in a victory dance of sorts. I was dazed, both physically and emotionally. I saw my teammates’ faces, proud, tears flowing. Many in the crowd were weeping. And they weren’t weeping because they were bearing witness to a new world endurance record. They were seeing somebody who refused to quit. And they were taking that ethic to their own lives, thinking of their own dreams.
When my feet touched solid sand, the clock stopped. 52 hours, 54 minutes, 18 seconds. I was the first to swim from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage. The official distance was 110.86 miles. You could barely understand my speech, my mouth hugely swollen with the salt and sun exposure, with a lot of internal mouth lacerations from the mask, but I had three messages when I reached shore. I said, “One, never ever give up. Two, you’re never too old to chase your dreams. Three, it looks like a solitary sport, but it takes a team.
It’s been a bit more than four years since the stumble up onto that beach and I can of course remember that moment of team and history and exhilaration. But what has really stayed with me is not the victory itself but rather what it took to get there. Those three life philosophies I spoke to the crowd that day, Labor Day, September 2, 2013, are what I am now living out loud. No matter what I do, I will not give up. And I dream big. I’d rather fail chasing an outrageous goal, discovering who I am and what I’m capable of, rather than be satisfied with mediocre achievements that require that I tap into a mere shallow layer of my potential. And I never forget that I do nothing alone. There is always a collaboration, a gathering of talents, behind every effort I make.
I can’t look at the globe and imagine another swim for me. Cuba was the swim of my soul and now it’s done. So my challenge now is to live that kind of high aspiration out of the water. I have the privilege of traveling the world telling my story. From Stockholm to Minneapolis, I get up and weave the tale on stage and the crowd usually leaps to their feet in an ovation at the end, not so much in awe of me but in a state of excitement to get back to their own lives and put that “never ever give up” mentality into whatever other shores they have in view.
DIANA’S PASSION PROJECT
THE NATIONAL WALKING INITIATIVE, IN DIANA’S WORDS: Bonnie and I have launched a national walking initiative, EverWalk, with the lofty vision of turning sedentary America into a nation of walkers. We believe in the power of moving under one’s own steam across the curvature of the earth. To walk from city to city, to walk from your home to your grocery store and back, gives you a high you simply can’t achieve in your car. We believe in the inspiration of the great outdoors. When you look toward the horizon, up to the azure blue of our sky, to the glory of strong trees, you spark your imagination. You picture just who you’d like to become, just what you’d like to do next.
After our epic Cuba journey, we wanted to offer epic to everybody and long walks down the stunning corridors of America is our gift of epic to the masses. We have done two epic EverWalks to date. First was Los Angeles to San Diego. Second was Boston to Cape Elizabeth, Maine, along the classic New England coast. Fall 2018 we will go Vancouver to Seattle, taking in the crisp air of the Pacific Northwest. We go 140 miles in 7 days, 20 miles a day. It’s not the extreme achievement of an Ironman. But it takes the discipline of training for several months, to put shoes to pavement 20
miles per day and the people Bonnie and I have led on these epics have found both empowerment and enlightenment and a bonding community as we’ve journeyed down these epic roads. Adrianne Haslet, for example, a brave young woman who lost her leg in the Boston Marathon bombing, walked with us all the way from Boston to Maine, reminding us every step of the way that we all need to turn to what we have, rather than what we’ve lost.
EverWalk.com 2018 will also become a robust, interactive site where walkers worldwide can create a profile page to log their miles, join our 110.86-mile club (you hit incentives by logging 110.86 miles per month), get daily tips on training and injuries and nutrition and motivation, find walking partners and walking events. Walking, with the advent of trackers, has risen into a wave across the U.S. We at EverWalk aim to push that wave up to a tsunami. All of us walking everywhere, all the time.
LEARN MORE AT EVERWALK.COM.