Photo Credit: Secret Deodorant/Christi Barli
This summer, record-holding American swimmer Diana Nyad is gearing up to swim 103 miles from Cuba to Florida at age 62 - a swim she failed to complete over thirty years ago. She sat down to talk with me about the swim, her past tribulations, and what keeps her so motivated to follow her dreams.
We're very excited for you. Now what is the date of this swim?
You know, we can't say a date because you've got to go when the conditions are right. I've learned the hard way. You don't mess with Mother Nature – that's what happened last time. So I'm sitting here in Key West. I've got my key personnel. We go out training. We try to get all the little details settled, all the technology and the boats put together and it's not going to happen for sure in the next seven days. I need the water to be another couple of degrees hotter. So maybe in the next two to three weeks.
And how long do you think the swim will be?
You know, Marlo, it's like I keep trying to wrap my own mind around it. But I think it's going to take about sixty hours – two and a half days.
What's going to be going through your head? Is it one thing that'll be going through your head? Or is there something that keeps you going the whole time? You must be thinking, right?
I've talked to neurologists and dream experts, and they say that what's happening is the left side of your brain, the concrete thinking; it doesn't work well after a while. So you're not really thinking concrete thoughts about your life and your family and what you want to do later. The right brain, the dream side, the unconscious takes over, so it's almost like you're awake but you're watching your unconscious brain. I do sing all kinds of songs. Like I'll take a Neil Young song and sing it two thousand times.
But is there a difference from what was in your head in '78?
Well, bingo! You know, a lot of people don't ask that. They ask what's different about your body at 61. They don't ask what's different in my head. I was very angry in my twenties. I had gone through sexual abuse all through my teen years and I was so damn angry. And I swam out of anger and there's a lot of power in anger, we all know that. But there's more power out of love and I don't mean to sound sort of airy-fairy about it. But like all of us at our age we've worked through a lot and found a lot of acceptance and are now just trying to appreciate life.
Do you think the rage stopped you from having the flow of the swim?
No. I think I swam successfully with rage. You look at athletes - John McEnroe is a good example. He played with a lot of rage and it wasn't bad for him. I know John, he's now in his fifties, and he says he wishes he had gotten to the state he's at now because he would have played even better.
Is there a scary scene that'll go through your head?
You know, honestly, I don't worry about the animals under the sea. I probably should but I feel like I have a very good protective team for me with that. But I think the scariest thing for me is failing; I just don't want to. And I've been on a lot shorter swims. I've been doing for the last two years multiple eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen hour swims. And I can tell you, last week I did a nine-hour here in Key West. I don't care whether you're getting ready for sixty – nine hours of continual swimming in the ocean is always a tough day.
Do you think about how you'd feel if you don't make it?
Yes, and I just won't go there. The whole visualization I do is seeing the Florida shore. There's a cardinal rule if you're doing a really long swim – you never look up. You don't look forward and look for the shore because you're going to see depressing horizon time after time. Another cardinal rule is I don't allow any of the people on the team ever to tell me what time it is. Some CNN person might come over and say, Diana, you're halfway there, this is great. Well, they have no idea if I'm halfway there. You know, the weather may change. I may vomit my guts up and not have anything left. I don't want to know. I just put my head down, I breathe to the left toward the boat to see, track the boat and try to go straight. I just picture the Florida shore in my mind. I picture the palm trees. I picture lights at night. And so I don't picture not making it and getting out on the boat. I picture making it.
What gave you the idea in the first place to attempt this swim again?
Cuba never ate at me. I never have thought about it once. I did my best. I tried to make it over. At least I did the Bahamas the next year and I'd say I've forgotten about it. But turning sixty really bothered me and it wasn't the cosmetics of it. I don't have any worries about breasts sagging a little more than they used to, you know? I think growing old is a beautiful thing, and that's never bothered me. But my mom died when she was eighty-two just a couple of years ago, while I was turning sixty, and I just thought wow, you know, life seems to go by exponentially faster as we get older. You blink and it's another Thanksgiving. I am going to blink and I'm going to be eighty-two and there isn't much time left. What the heck am I doing? And I just thought, I want to feel alive, I want to feel committed. I wanted to do something that just took the most out of me. And one day I was driving my car and I thought, you know what, this is crazy. I think I'll go back and do that swim that was in my imagination all those years ago – Cuba, yeah. And you know what? I have not thought one moment about oh, life is short and I don't have much time left, and what the heck did I do with all those years before, all these regrets. All that's gone away. And when I finish this swim, I'm not going to swim any more but I'm going to keep living like this.
So is that pretty much your advice for people, especially women over sixty?
It's the remedy. I don't care what age you are. But women over sixty, especially women feeling like they'll never be married again, that their time is done - my gosh, we're so alive, so vital at this age. And if you can just immerse yourself in your life, it doesn't matter what you do every day. Just do it intensely, be in it so that when you go to sleep you're exhausted every night and you say whoa, I just couldn't have done any more with that day.
So does it feel different going for this as a goal now, in the over sixty club? Is it that now that you savor life more than you did when you were in your twenties?
Yes. I'm not wrapped up in the need to be special and the fame part of it. I'm just not that person any more. I have to do it because I want to do it. I want the feeling, I want the accomplishment, I want to live my life this way. There are sixty-year-olds all over the world who will see this and say you know what, I'm going to drag that novel out of the back of my drawer that I said I'd never do. It's not too late. Sixty is very young.
That's interesting, because even people who aren't athletes, people like me, are so inspired by what you're doing. And I think that your story probably offers to people is that you should keep dreaming, get that novel out of the back of your drawer, and do the things that you're afraid of or that you've dreamt about but didn't have the courage to think that you could do again.
That's exactly what I'm saying. I mean, how many people are going to watch this and say, you know what, I want to swim from Cuba to Florida? Maybe three who are already distance swimmers. But I hope that there are going to be literally millions of people who are going to say, my God, I'm just sick of being this fat. I'm sick of not living my life. I'm sick of eating a dozen donuts every morning and not feeling well.
How do you get such a great support team together? I've heard you have about twenty-five experts, navigators, meteorologists, and oceanographers. How do you get them psyched up for this swim? They've got to be as psyched as you, right? They have a lot invested in this.
They are. They have a lot invested. It's two years now. They've given a lot of time, some of them full-time. And, you know, there isn't much money in it. I'm still raising funds to try to get the thing done. First of all, they're personal friends and so we're doing this as a great friendship that we'll never forget, a bond among each other. And other than that it's history. I mean a lot of people know that this has never been done. There is no more famous patch of water. The earth is four-fifths water and the most well-known stretch of water on the planet today is this water between Cuba and Florida.
And so after this, what's next for you?
I really don't know. I think I'm going to write a book this coming year. I've written a few books before. It's time to write another one now that I've got different philosophies of life. I'd love to do a one-woman show, and I could say who doesn't. But I used to be intimidated. I used to see Lily Tomlin and say well, I'm no Lily Tomlin. But now it's a genre, and lots of people have something to say. I could certainly learn a lot from a director, but I've got timing and stories and compassion. And when I do speak in front of a crowd, I think it's my real talent; I love public speaking, performing in front of an audience as a one-woman kind of thing. So I'd like to do that over this next year. But more than that, it just doesn't matter. I just want to be a great friend and smell the flowers and just soak it all up every day.
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