When most people turn 60 they start to dream about retirement. Diana Nyad is not "most people". She decided, at the age of 60, that this was the perfect time to pursue her dream, a dream to do something that no other human being had done before (without a shark cage*). After years of having a burning desire, and one failed attempt, to swim from Cuba to the Florida, Nyad set out to once again fulfill a life's ambition. It would take countless hours of training, putting her body through extreme fatigue, knowing she would not be able to sleep for over 48 hours during the actual swim, and assembling the most dedicated, knowledgeable team possible in order succeed.
Long distance swimmers are a breed unto themselves. Like other athletes that choose to challenge their bodies and minds beyond what was thought humanly possible, Nyad is part of an elite group of people: athletes who pursue extreme sports such as ultra marathoners that run 100 miles at a time, Everest climbers who reach elevations where airplanes fly, or free divers who descend on average 200 feet into the depths of water while holding their breath for minutes without the aid of oxygen. Long distance swimmers spend hours upon hours in the water. An average training session can last 13-15 hours. Nyad eventually was swimming for 24 hours. In addition to long stretches of solitude and sensory deprivation, she would have to mentally and physically prepare for dehydration, hypothermia, and extended exposure to salt water. Her mentality was, "It's a vast, epic wilderness out there. It won't be me that quits. It will never be me that said 'It's too big for me' ".
Nyad became a recognized long distance swimmer at the age of 26 when she successfully swam around Manhattan (28 miles). Three years later she made her first attempt to swim from Cuba to Florida. Eight foot high relentless waves over many hours, and being blown off course eventually ended that crusade.
The next year she prepared to swim from Cuba again but the permits weren't granted in time. Instead she swam from the Bahamas to Juno Beach, Florida (102 miles).
She gave up on pursuing her Cuba-to-Florida dream for decades, but her dream never let go of her.
Then at the age of 60 her life’s events started to collide. Her mother died. She realized she was living with a lifetime of regrets. She poignantly felt the slippage of time.
And the dream, the dream was still there.
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Mary Oliver wrote in “The Summer Day”.
It was this confluence of life’s events and the words of Mary Oliver that helped bring her purpose into focus. She was going to dedicate her efforts to go after her dream.
At age 60, she embarked on the journey. She trained and trained and failed two more times. Her efforts were thwarted by strong, dangerous currents, an asthma attack, and countless stings from Man o’ War and box jellyfish. Encountering the Box jellies were particularly debilitating. They are the size of a sugar cube, send venom into the central nervous system. and can put their victim into a paralysis. Their stings have even been fatal.
Box Jelly scars
In her fifth attempt, at the age of 64, her support started to diminish. Her nutritionist showed her factually why it was impossible for ANY human being to take in enough nutrition. CNN said they couldn’t dedicate resources to cover her swim. And her main handler, Bonnie, told her it’s a great dream but she wasn’t up for another attempt. Nyad convinced Bonnie to stay. She took what she learned from the past four attempts, most important adding a silicone mask to stave off the box jellyfish stings.
The lifesaving silicone mask that took nine months to develop.
And on September 2, 2013, after swimming 110 miles for nearly 53 hours, she achieved her goal and brought the country with her. We wept as we celebrated this amazing accomplishment of the human spirit.
While she had fully envisioned what she would say when she finished, what she actually said surprised herself. During the swim she had reached a state of delirium. She had been in salt water for over 50 hours. Exhausted and barely able to stand, she uttered three sentences that were reported around the world, inspiring millions.
(Right - Officially, the swimmer has to clear all water before anyone can touch her. If she's touched, the swim is invalid.)
"Never, ever give up.
You're never too old to chase your dreams.
Swimming looks like a solitary sport but it isn’t.”
Today she is 67 years old. She spoke to a room filled with admirers at Changing Hands Bookstore in Phoenix, Arizona. She recounted the swim and brought us into the water with her descriptive storytelling.
You may ask, "What's next for Diana?" Well, get your sneakers on because she just may inspire you to start walking. She's embarking on a walking campaign which will culminate in a walk across America with the goal of taking 1,000,000 people with her. Are you ready?
"We have no idea what the power of the human being is when it comes to will. Show me the limitation of the human spirit. It's not about making it; it's about not giving up on trying. Whatever is your other shore, get up, and never give up."
*The difference between swimming with a shark cage or swimming unaided is not so much about the protection from sharks but from the advantage of the eddies that a shark cage creates in the water. It propels a swimmer much faster than they would naturally swim.
Alba Rodriguez and Cindy Dick, from On Her Mark, meet Diana Nyad at Changing Hands Bookstore. Phoenix, AZ. You can read more about Diana Nyad in her new book, "Find a Way."