The Swimmer


By Shana Naomi Krochmal

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

Even at peak fitness, she is so weak at the end of these test runs that she must be lifted out of the water and carried like a newlywed across the deck to be laid down on her back, swaddled in towels, lips swollen and body fighting to detox itself from the salt absorbed through her skin.
She’ll do one 24-hour swim before hunkering down to wait out the weather. And then, if everything goes right, she’ll swim about 200,000 strokes without Mother Nature’s menagerie getting in her way. If it goes really right, she’ll enjoy a calm, flat ocean, because as little as a one-foot difference in the height of swells can quickly and exponentially destroy her timing.

Most of Nyad’s heroes are near-strangers, survivors whose stories she’s collected throughout the years: an octogenarian Holocaust survivor whose young childhood in Dachau was spent as a concubine to SS guards; a man in his thirties who lives down the street from Nyad and is raising three young kids after cancer killed his wife; a sobbing woman Nyad comforted in a Starbucks whose baby was run over after being left in a bassinet in the driveway. “She asked, ‘How am I supposed to go on now?’ And I said, ‘I’ll tell you the truth: I don’t know.’ How do people journey through and find hope again, find love again?”

Sometimes, but not always, Nyad talks about her own sexual abuse in her speeches. When she does, she knows she will inevitably be taken aside afterward by men and women who share their own shaky stories. Nyad says, “Those are the people I admire. Those are the journeys. We all feel pain. We all have hardship.”

This summer, millions will gather on the banks of the Serpentine in Hyde Park to watch the 10k open-water swim, a competition that didn’t exist until Beijing’s games in 2008. And while she’s tough on the Gay Games -- “I don’t respect it,” she says, “the word ‘Games’ is special” -- in 1978, Nyad called her Cuba swim “my own private Olympics.”

“There’s something of that still left in me that has a competitive ego,” she says. “I could care less if this swim becomes a new world record or if my goggles are in the Smithsonian Institution. I’m sure if all those things happen, I’ll be honored. And I surely don’t want the disappointment of not making it. I don’t want this to be a failure. It’s been too long and too hard, and I can’t do it again.” She’s said that before, of course. After this year, though, she says, “I’m not going to swim anywhere again. But I want to live like this.”

That means she’ll probably do less sportscasting and more speaking out about sexual abuse, especially in a world where a Penn State–sized scandal can disappear from the headlines in a matter of months. “It’s such an epidemic,” she says. “It’s happening everywhere.” She’s working with Joshua Ravetch (who directed Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking) on a one-woman theatrical staging of her motivational talks. “You call it a corporate speech, but it’s really a performance.” And she’s started talking to major corporations about an “Xtreme Dream” annual event, in which employees would get a day off every spring to “March Forth” toward some personal goal.

“Nobody unkindly wrote me last year to say, ‘Oh, what a disappointment.’ They said, ‘It’s all about the journey, and you don’t need to get to the other shore.’ That’s the irony. It’s always the debate of the journey and the destination. You wouldn’t be going through that heroism if you weren’t shooting for the other shore. It’s all about the destination -- and the journey to get there, but not without the destination.”

UPDATE (9/2/2013): >>>>>>>>>>>

On Diana Nyad's fifth attempt at swimming from Cuba to Florida—25 years after she first tried—Nyad, now 64, successfully reached Key West after more than 50 hours in the water. Her 110-mile swim set numerous records, including the first Cuba-Florida crossing for a swimmer without use of a shark cage.

In contrast to her previous journeys, Nyad enjoyed relatively moderate weather, good currents and a far smaller number of the dangerous box jellyfish. "You're never too old to chase your dreams," she said to supporters and camera crews on the beach, before falling into the arms of her best friend and chief trainer, Bonnie Stoll.