The Swimmer

7.9.2012

By Shana Naomi Krochmal

What drives a 63-year-old woman in her lifelong quest to swim from Cuba to America?

Long before the Kardashians processed each new microemotion on TV, athletes were ambushed by flashing cameras while still in the throes of endorphins, peppered by questions about what their win/loss/tie meant to them, to their coaches, to their fans, to their nation. They were the first reality stars, and some were so good at it they retired to on-camera careers as commentators or actors or hosts.

When Nyad quit swimming, she enjoyed some celebrity -- she appeared on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, was name-checked by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis on the front page of The New York Post, and was eventually courted by ABC Sports. “I’d done nothing like that,” Nyad says. “I was at NYU, studying comparative literature for a master’s degree, thinking I’d teach Madame Bovary.” She covered world championships and the Olympics for Fox Sports, was a commentator for CBS, and hosted international travel documentaries and exotic animal shows, but is probably best known for a regular column on NPR.

Out of the water, Nyad is a big personality in a tiny frame (those ocean-crossing shoulders her mother worried about are strong, but she’s surprisingly proportionally petite). She is confident, bordering on cocky, demanding in that charismatic way that stars have where you find yourself wanting to be helpful, even if it means agreeing to meet for the first time at a Volvo dealership at 8:30 on a Saturday morning.

In the three hours we spend together on a Los Angeles day that swings from gloomy overcast skies to scalding sunshine, I quickly learn that there is one thing that Nyad can do as well as she can swim: talk. Her stories are tight little races; you don’t know where they’re going until they arrive, usually in heart-wrenching detail, at a moment of great triumph or tragedy. Her sentences are less steady than her famously even strokes, often abandoned in her rush to get to the climax. But she has a marathoner’s stamina; she almost never stops talking. It’s not the selfish babble of a straight-up egotist—she also asks razor-sharp questions of everyone she encounters.

The only time she is content to be silent is when her best friend, business partner, and coach-like handler, Bonnie Stoll, is in the car with us, propped up in the backseat and cranky about being dependent while she recovers from knee surgery. Then it’s as if Stoll’s mere presence is enough to take up all the quiet space. Together, they focus on criticizing my driving -- “I could have walked down that hill as fast as you drove it,” Stoll says -- and directing me to the personal-training appointment Stoll has for the fitness company they own together. It’s a tiny glimpse of what I imagine Nyad experiences in the water, and I can’t help but speed up.

Nyad now raises a good chunk of the cost of her marathon swims as a motivational speaker, addressing corporate retreats, colleges, and associations (a representative example can be found in her TEDMED talk available on YouTube). She can rattle off tips for aspiring toastmasters (“Don’t talk about things you don’t know”) and has a tendency to veer off into her version of a stump speech: “We all have hopes and dreams. You get a certain finite time, and all you can do is be in awe of it.” She is saved from a Tom Cruise–in-Magnolia-ish performance only by her transparent sincerity.

The story she tells over and over is about turning 60.

She had managed to stay relevant as a journalist. She was gregarious, outgoing, and charming. She didn’t expend any energy trying to hide that she was a lesbian, once she figured it out -- at 21, she had taken a bus from New York City to Ann Arbor, Mich., for a friend’s surprise birthday party. “They didn’t tell me they were all gay,” she says. “They thought, She won’t care, she’ll just get here and deal.” She had sex with three women that night.

“I stayed for two weeks and went out every night and slept with everybody in the town.” Before that, she says, “I was just so messed up. I didn’t have any sexuality -- I just knew I didn’t want to be with men. But I thought it was all just because of the trauma -- you never know, but I think I was gay from day one.”

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