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The Profile Dossier: Diana Nyad, the First Person to Swim Unassisted from Cuba to Florida
“When you achieve your dreams, it's not so much what you get, it’s who you become.”
At 64 years old, Diana Nyad became the first person ever to swim from Cuba to Florida without the assistance of a shark cage.
It took her 53 hours to swim 110 miles in open water.
Before she embarked on this treacherous journey, she hadn’t swum a single lap for 30 years, and her journey was one of endless trial and error.
She tried for the first time in 1978 when she was 28 years old, but abandoned the attempt due to strong winds and 8-foot swells. So she gave up on her career as a competitive marathon swimmer and became a sports broadcaster for the next three decades.
And then she had a wake-up call. Her mother passed away at the age of 87, so Nyad looked at her own life and thought, “I realized I might only have 22 years left and I just wanted to make sure I really lived them.”
Nyad’s idea of ‘really living’ meant swimming unassisted from Cuba to Florida. She would give her old dream another shot. During her first attempt, she ended the expedition after 29 hours when she had an asthma flare-up, which made it difficult to catch her breath. Six weeks later, she made a second attempt, only to be attacked by box jellyfish, the most poisonous creatures on earth. “I was in real emotional distress when it was over,” she says.
“I was just angry, and one day, I went into the garage and saw all my swim stuff from the last two years, and I just threw it in the garbage bin,” she says. “I was just so damn mad.”
Twenty-four hours went by, and she had time to cool off. Nyad went outside, took her gear out of the garbage, washed it in the shower, and got it ready for yet another attempt.
Her friends tried to talk her out of it. They told her she had nothing to prove, so why put her life at risk again? They told her, “Why don’t you move on? There’s no shame in it.”
Nyad replied, “Yeah there’s no shame in it, but I’m just not the type to sit around and watch someone else do it all. It’s just not me. I just cannot give up when it’s something I know I can do.”
Nyad got back in the water in 2012, her fourth attempt at this swim. But her team ended up pulling the plug on it because of two storms and nine jellyfish stings even though she had gotten further than she had during any of her previous attempts.
Finally, on the morning of August 31, 2013, Nyad gave it a shot for the fifth time. Wearing a full bodysuit and a mask to protect her from jellyfish, she embarked on the 110-mile journey to Key West.
As night came, she couldn’t see anything. Nyad felt the sensation of the water and listened to John Lennon’s “Imagine,” as she swam — stroke after stroke, mile after mile.
Of course, the actual swim wasn’t as peaceful as it sounds. Nyad began vomiting due to the seawater, the jellyfish mask caused abrasions inside of her mouth, and she began hallucinating due to hypothermia. “I am seeing the Taj Mahal over here,” she says. “I’m in a very different state, and I’m thinking, wow, I never thought I’d be running into the Taj Mahal out here. It’s gorgeous. I mean, how long did it take them to build that?”
Fifty-three hours later, she reached Key West. When she staggered out of the water, the first thing she said was, “Never, ever give up.”
At 64 years old, Nyad achieved what no person — man or woman — had ever done before: She swam from Cuba to Key West without the aid of a shark cage.
“I feel pride in myself and in those of us who were willing to fail in front of the public again and again and look like fools,” Nyad says. “It wasn’t to break that record. It wasn’t to wind up in the halls of fame. It was to be a person I could admire.”
Watch the video below for the three messages she had when she reached Key West:
On having ‘a steel-trap mind:’ Nyad achieved a superhuman feat, but so much of her preparation was mental as well as physical. She says it’s much more about resisting pain, managing energy, and developing “a steel-trap mind.” Here’s how she prepared her mind to endure the impossible.
On channeling her anger: In her early 20s, Nyad felt anger every day. She had suffered sexual abuse at the hands of a swim coach when she was a teenager. “[The abuse] made me deeply, deeply angry,” she says. “I used to feel it when I was swimming; I used to feel the rage, and I would act it out as I swam. In the water, I felt totally and completely safe. It started with rage, and I won’t say that it quite ended in peace, but I did work through quite a bit in the ocean.”
On finding a way: Why is it that at 64 years old Nyad was able to achieve what she could not at 28? How did her dramatic failures push her to success? What inner resources did Diana draw on during her long days and nights of training, and how did the power of the human spirit trump both the limitations of the body and the forces of nature across this vast, dangerous wilderness? Her memoir is the gripping story of an athlete with a bold mind and an unbreakable spirit.
On the science of Nyad’s swim: Steve Munatones, the director of the marathon swimming Hall of Fame, discusses something called ‘The Uncertainty Principle,’ which takes into account wind, waves, distance, navigation errors, equipment failures, seasickness, and marine life and calculates the chances of completion. “Once you calculate all of those factors,” he says, “she had a 1.3% chance in a thousand attempts to be successful.” This is a must-watch.
On finding a way: Standing on the Cuban shore about to begin her journey, Nyad had a mantra. It was these three words: “Find a way.” None of us get through this life without heartache, without turmoil, without hardship, she says. Nyad knows this as she had tried three times before and failed, but this time, she was determined to find her way to Florida. There’s always a way — you just have to find it.
On the power of consistency: As a marathon swimmer, how does Nyad keep her mind occupied? She counts. She counts her first thousand strokes in English, the next 2,000 strokes in German, the next 3,000 strokes in Spanish, the next 4,000 strokes in French, and so on. In this short documentary, we see Nyad’s journey to greatness. “The whole lesson of this for me is, ‘Forward.’ Push forward. Onward. Do,” she says.
On the rewards of marathon swimming: In this 1978 interview, Nyad says that swimming is the most boring sport on the planet, but sometimes, we have to endure boredom, pain, and discomfort to get the reward at the end of the journey. Nyad explains that she never experiences that pleasurable “runner’s high” that comes after intense exercise.
Don’t let your age be your ruler: The biggest lesson I took away from Nyad is that you’re at your prime when you decide you’re at your prime. Who’s to say what’s possible at 24, 64, or 84? Nyad is living proof that you can chase dreams at any age. “Sixty-four, that no one at any age, any gender, could ever do, has done it, and there’s no doubt in my mind that I am at the prime of my life today,” she says.
End toxic rumination patterns: Throughout her life, Nyad has been celebrated but also scrutinized and admonished for her relentlessness in pursuing her goal to swim from Cuba to Florida. But, she says, “I have to sleep with my decisions, and no one else’s.” This mentality is what has stopped her worry in its tracks. Whenever someone suggested that she’s “too old” or commented on her “aging body,” she has an amazing ability to ignore other people’s opinions. “I carry more fat than I did when I was younger,” she says. “What am I going to do? Worry about that? Talk about not being in the moment! Any moment I spend fretting that I’m not younger, it’s just a waste.” Remember, she says, it’s how you live that’s important, not how you look.
Be willing to fail in public: Is there any greater accountability than failing time and time again in the public eye? Nyad has tried and failed in public five separate times. “When I’m out there, I’m thinking to myself: I’m a rare breed,” she says. “There aren’t many people in the world who can do this.” And she’s not only rare because she completed the task, she’s rare because she used failure as intel on how to iterate in the future. Attacked by jellyfish? She got a jellyfish mask. Storm on the horizon? Map out a better route ahead of time. Remember, failure isn’t a dead-end — not learning from it is.
Know when to ditch the balance: The question about “balancing your personal and professional life” is a cliché at this point because we all know there is no such thing as the perfect balance. When Nyad was asked, she explained that sometimes in life, you need to let go of striving for balance when you’re striving for something extreme. “I never found balance when training hard. All else in my life suffered,” she says. “That was a choice I made, at an extreme level in an extreme sport.” Everything is a choice and a priority. Some parts of life are about balance, and others are about tipping the scale.
QUOTES TO REMEMBER.
“I go to bed every night thinking there’s nothing more I could have done that day.”
“The spirit is larger than the body. The body is pathetic compared to what we have inside us.”
“This journey has always been about reaching your own other shore no matter what it is, and that dream continues.”
“I wanted to teach myself some life lessons at the age of 60 and one of them was that you don't give up.”
“Every human being on this planet has their pain and their heartache and it's up to all of us to find our way back to the light.”
“When you reach for the horizon, as I've proven, you may not get there, but what a tremendous build of character and spirit that you lay down. What a foundation you lay down in reaching for those horizons.”
“When you achieve your dreams, it's not so much what you get, it’s who you become.”