At 64, Diana Nyad did the impossible. Now what?


UPSTREAM COLOR | Lesbian long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad was in town last week at the Sheraton Dallas to tell her remarkable tale of endurance. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor

When Diana Nyad was the first contestant bumped from the latest season of Dancing with the Stars last month, it was a rare defeat for a woman who seems destined to achieve all her goal.

It’s OK, though. She can wait. Maybe she’ll come back five years from now and win the trophy outright.
Don’t put anything past her. Nyad has the patience of a shaman. And the tenacity of a pit bull.

Or perhaps a better metaphor would be a shark. She is, after all, best know for her achievements in the water.
She shot to fame in the 1970s, setting a record in the Bay of Naples race, then the following year swimming around Manhattan — a stunning 28 miles. But she was just getting started.

In 1978, she made her first attempt to swim from Havana, Cuba, to Key West, Fla.; she failed. She also failed on her second attempt, 33 years later; and her third; and her fourth.

Then last year, at age 64, she did it: the first person (man or woman) to swim the 110 miles without aid of a shark cage. It took her 53 hours.

“Well, 52 hours and 52 minutes,” she corrects me with a grin. “But I’ll spot you the eight minutes.”

It was a gargantuan achievement for someone with a history of swimming against the tide. Her previous long-distance attempts resulted in severe jellyfish stings and all manner of exhaustion, but she persevered, just as she has in her personal life: as a rape survivor and openly lesbian athlete. Conquest is in her DNA.

“In all our undertaking with Mother Nature — all of our expeditions climbing mountains, etc. — you learn something whether you achieve your goals or not,” she says during a recent visit to Dallas as the keynote speaker at the Dallas Children’s Advocacy Center’s Appetite for Advocacy luncheon.

“I’m a better athlete today [than I was when I first attempted the swim]. I’m not as fast — I’m sluggish even just in a 100m swim — but in terms of energy, of recuperation, and the mind, which is far more powerful than the body, you have the capacity.”

It certainly took determination few can fathom — at an age when most folks are settling into a lazy retirement — set a world record unheard of in human physical history. And after four failed attempts, three in just the last few years, it demonstrates not only prowess but character. Still, Nyad has no problem putting credit where credit is due.

“The technology is incredible now. There’s always a new possibility — a new silicone mask, a new body gel, an answer to every issue,” she says, standing the entire length of interview. (“I hate to sit down — but you should feel free to,” she tells me.)

The rules of the swim are almost as taxing as the swimming itself. “You have to do it in the summer — by October 1, it’s just too cold,” she says. “It’s ironic because it’s during hurricane season, so you have to slow down between storms, but I need the water to be 84 to 86° because you’re in the water for 2½ days nonstop.” During the swim, “you’re not allowed to touch anything — not a person, not a surfboard.”

Still, it’s not constant motion. “You have to pee, to drink, to eat,” she confides. “They can even give you injections — the doctor’ll administer it through your suit. But he’s not allowed to give me flotation aid. The rules say you have to go until there is no more sea-water! So when I was walking up on Key West, there was this entire cordon of people running on both sides saying, ‘Don’t touch her!’ Can you imagine losing it there?”

Nyad continues to take on new challenges. DWTS was just the latest one, but an autobiography is expected next year (she has, however, stopped contributing to NPR, where her commentaries have been a mainstay for a quarter century). But even Nyad probably knows nothing will ever compare to what she did last September.

“The swim from Havana to Key West is our Mount Everest — the impossible goal,” she says. “There’s nothing else that can really stir my soul that way.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 25, 2014.