By Shana Naomi Krochmal
Photography by Catherine Opie
By the time you read this, Diana Nyad may have achieved her elusive lifelong dream. Or not. Or she may be on the verge of doing so, or on the verge of failing. We cannot know, because the sea is a mystery, and understanding it is the key to conquering it.
What Nyad knows is that three times she has tried to swim the 103 miles separating Cuba from Florida, and every time she has been defeated -- by weather patterns, by box jellyfish, by exhaustion. This summer represents attempt number four. She is 63. She is as ready as she’s ever been.
Once the great journey begins, she will be surrounded by a small flotilla of support teams. But she will still be a tiny, solitary speck in the ocean,
arms pushing into each wave, alone in the water. Alone in her head. And that’s where things really get tough.
In extreme sports -- scaling Mt. Everest extreme, not BMX bike stunts on Spike TV -- youth does not always command the advantage it does in other athletics. Any physical feat relies as much on the triumph of mind over body as it does on sheer strength and agility, but the mental rigor required to spend hours or days engaged in one repetitive drive toward a finish line may actually benefit from maturity, if you can maintain the competitive stubbornness and achieve a certain measured peace with your past.
Nyad’s childhood was Continental -- a French mom and a Greek father, who later turned out to be her stepfather -- and she spent her early years traveling, becoming a polyglot, and learning very quickly to forge her own way.
“My father was a desperately immoral guy -- a liar, a professional thief, a polished lowlife,” she says. “He was also gorgeous. Women died when he walked into a restaurant -- and some men. And because my mother was so meek and needed him so badly and took his side in everything, I took charge of myself early on.”
In 1959, when Nyad was 10, her mother, by then divorced, moved them to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where a little island that would bring America to its knees was just across the horizon.
“It was just when the Cubans were coming to Miami,” Nyad says. “I’d say, ‘You mean it’s right over there? And we can’t go there, and they can’t come here? I wonder if anyone could ever swim over there.’ The earth is four-fifths water. You can swim 100 miles anywhere.”
But whereas many long-distance swimmers in the early 20th century focused on the English Channel, Nyad was already a warm-water creature. “To me, Cuba—I just can’t think of a stretch of water that has so much mystique to it.”
Nyad won three state championships in high school for her backstroke -- her mother, impeccably put together, “wished I would [have] played tennis and [had] a little pleated skirt” -- and in her twenties emerged as a star in the still-unusual field of distance swimming in open waters.
Even then, she wasn’t the fastest, but she was unerringly consistent. Hidden underneath the steady stroke was a scar being ripped open and stitched back together with each mile. She wasn’t a clicking metronome, she was a nuclear submarine.
“All that ocean-swimming I did back in the ’70s was just filled with anger,” Nyad says. “And sometimes anger is very powerful. John McEnroe played his tennis with anger. I think it was a little part of my success back then.”
Her anger was no tantrum played out on a tennis court. “I was swimming every stroke with anger at that man and that sexual abuse,” she says. “That man” was her high-school coach back in Florida, an Olympian and Hall of Fame vet, and “that sexual abuse” was the four years of rape she endured under his tutelage. “I was so naïve. I hated him and loved him and felt humiliated and denigrated and so afraid, so terrified to be the last one left or the first one there in case I might be taken or attacked. At the same time, I felt like the chosen one.”
She shared that closely guarded secret with her best friend a few years later, only to discover they had the same story -- and so did other girls. When Nyad told her mother, “she said, ‘Oh honey, don’t use words like rape. He’s a man of prominence.’ ” Over the years, as the accusations became public, the coach denied everything. It took decades for Nyad and her mother, who dealt with the onset of Alzheimer’s, to forge a close relationship.
So she kept swimming. She swam so hard and fast and angry that she set new world records. She swam around Manhattan in 1975 in just under eight hours, breaking a 50-year-old record. She tried for the first time to swim from Cuba to Florida in 1978, but only made it 42 hours before the combination of high waves and the metal shark cage she was inside became too brutal to endure. The next year, she swam 102 miles, from the Bahamas to Florida -- a slightly easier trajectory -- and walked onto the beach at dawn of her 30th birthday.
And then she decided she would never swim again.