103 Miles from Cuba: Nyad Swims Against the Past and Wins

By Mike Scarr

Editor’s Note: This update first appeared on Livestrong.com on September 3, 2013.

Diana Nyad scaled her Everest. She found her grail. She slew the white whale.

She jumped in the water and swam and didn’t stop until she walked upon dry land.

Nyad made it.

“I got three messages,” Nyad is quoted telling reporters. “One is we should never, ever give up. Two is you never are too old to chase your dreams. Three is it looks like a solitary sport, but it’s a team.”

Nyad completed her 103­-mile, lifetime achievement of a swim Monday ­­ a journey that began in Cuba and ended successfully in Key West, Florida.

And it was not simply the distance, it was the method.

The 64-­year-­old swimmer completed each stroke without any swim aids or flippers and without the protection of a shark cage, which not only can provide a drafting effect but in Nyad’s thinking, what is the point.

If you’re gonna swim, swim with the sharks, and the jellyfish and the barracuda and whatever else might float along in the Florida Straits.

Susie Malroney completed the 103­-mile swim in 1997, but used a cage.

This was the fifth attempt for Nyad, who made her name as a marathon swimmer in the 1970s. She first tried to cross in 1978, but ran out of physical gas. She hadn’t yet learned proper nutrition for being in the water and swimming 50+ hours.

Nyad also swam miles off course in that attempt.

A successful broadcasting career intervened and swimming became a distant memory, until the notion resurfaced to revisit past failures after she turned 60 and her mother died.

Three more unsuccessful attempts ­­ two in 2011 and another in 2012 ­­ ended like the first, as she was hauled out of the water by her team of handlers, who accompany the swims in a flotilla of boats and kayaks.

A combination of asthma attacks and jellyfish stings prevented her from going any farther, which she mitigated this trip with a body suit and mask.

But on Monday, on the fitting occasion of Labor Day, her labor of love was realized as she walked ashore.

“I think that a lot of people in our country have gotten depressed, pinned in, pinned down with living lives they don’t want,” Nyad told CNN.com. “I do write all the time about ­­ you tell me what your dreams are. What are you chasing? It’s not impossible. Name it.”

I got three messages. One is we should never, ever give up. Two is you never are too old to chase your dreams. Three is it looks like a solitary sport, but it’s a team.

Editor’s note: story below originally published June, 2011

Diana Nyad looked across the sea and asked the simple question.

What if?

The “what” was a 103­mile expanse of water that separates Cuba from Key West. The “if” was jumping in that water and seeing if she could swim across.

She jumped, she swam but she could not make it.

Nyad failed at the one thing that had been her passion since taking up the brutal, relentless, isolating grind of long­distance, marathon swimming as a teenager. Swimming from Cuba to Florida was to be the sparkling career ender for Nyad, who was then 29.

A swim from the island of Bimini a year later set a record and she retired. But the recuperative nature of life is remarkable if not fickle. Despite thinking she had shelved her Speedo, the idea of Cuba remained parked deep in her consciousness so she’s trying again.

At age 61.

And during this 30+ year span, Nyad has not swum a stroke.

Not in a pool. Not in a lake. Not to make it to the other side of a river.

The aquatic sport she did make time for was boogie boarding, but that stroke is really paddling.

She was fairly certain she might not ever swim again but life not only can renew opportunities it can shift perspective.

SECOND CHANCES

A quick glance in the mirror about the time of her 60th birthday rekindled an idea that had long been forgotten. The years had passed and Cuba was still there, but was the body willing?

If there is a betting line on her to make it this summer, it’s time to lay the money because at some point in the next few months she will give it another go.

“This is it. I’ve got the commitment going,” Nyad said of her upcoming attempt. “I’ve got the fire. I’m living life large.”

Nyad is infectious, she’s engaging. She speaks with clarity and passion as she leans forward on the desk of her office in her Hancock Park home in Los Angeles.

Within minutes she could have anyone ready to jump into the Florida Straits with her.

She handles questions seamlessly, befitting of someone who has spent time on both sides of the microphone as a world class athlete and television broadcaster.

This upcoming quest is a solo endeavor, though, and while others will be nearby as part of her support crew, those folks get to ride in boats.

Nyad will be the lone swimmer in the water.

And she won’t be in a shark cage, despite 85­degree water that is home to tiger sharks and lemon sharks. Bull sharks, too.

All told, she expects to be in the water for about two and a half days.

“There is some nuttiness to it,” said best friend and personal fitness trainer Bonnie Stoll. “There is some insaneness, but that is part of her, too.”

JUMPING IN

Stoll saw Nyad on Johnny Carson and was hooked. She met her about two weeks later and the two have been friends since. That Tonight Show appearance came right on the heels of Nyad’s first attempt at getting from Cuba to Key West.

What Nyad had then, in 1978, was youth. What she didn’t have was the scouting report that might have made the difference.

She wasn’t aware that the currents upon leaving Cuba are particularly strong and can spin you literally in circles. Her team that measured a handful then, but will number 25 when she hopes to swim north to Florida some time between the last week in June and the first week in August, had no real concepts of hydration.

The science of nutrition and how it relates to endurance sports or training has advanced tremendously. Top marathon runners in the 70s like Bill Rodgers and Frank Shorter sipped cola drinks because it gave them some sugar and helped to calm an uneasy stomach.

During her 1978 Cuba attempt Nyad would swim up to the support boat and ask for a hard­boiled egg because she thought she needed some protein. But it was just a guess. There were no goos or gels or formulated performance drinks that restore glycogen levels or provide electrolytes.

But what they really didn’t have a handle on was the weather, which turned a basic straight line swim to the States into a lurching sea with eight­foot waves and sideways rain that conspired with wind and strong westerly currents.

After 42 hours, her handlers plucked her from the water, dehydrated and hallucinating. Had she kept swimming, she would have ended up in Texas.

“About a month later,” Nyad said.

The following year, with visa problems preventing another attempt from Cuba, Nyad set an open water record for swimming 102 miles from Bimini to Florida.

And then she quit, which she thought was for good.

“It’s time to retire,” Nyad said of that decision. “Grow up, make a living, follow a profession.”

A NEW CAREER

Nyad had no trouble adjusting to her new gig on dry land as TV analyst on ABC’s Wide World of Sports.

Cable television has turned the obscure to routine and the rude into reality, but during its 37­year run Wide World of Sports brought the little­known and the seldom seen to homes throughout the U.S.

Nyad was a natural.

An affinity for talk and a strong camera presence propelled her into a second career of broadcasting that included coverage of the Olympics and the Ironman. She was a correspondent for Fox Sports News and expanded beyond sports with work on CBS, CNBC and NPR.

There have also been numerous speaking engagements and a few books to her credit. None of which should come as any surprise given Nyad graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Lake Forest College in Illinois.

But not once during those three decades did she consider returning to Cuba.

“I wasn’t thinking of swimming,” Nyad said. ”Swimming wasn’t crossing my mind at all.”

Curious that a woman who spent half her life in the water would spend the next half out of it.

Nyad has had a successful broadcasting and speaking career.

BORN TO SWIM

Nyad was a teen phenom, excelling in the pool with ambitions set on the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. But a virus that affected her heart derailed that dream and nearly ruined her swimming altogether but upon recovery, she was introduced to long distance swimming.

It was quickly apparent that she had been born for the sport.

Nyad became the first person to swim from north to south across Lake Ontario. She rose to №1 in the world among marathon swimmers, man or woman. In 1975, her record time for a swim around Manhattan broke a 50­year­old mark. That stood for 20 more years.

Nyad swam in the Suez Canal, the Nile River and along the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

There were failures, too, as she came up short in three attempts to swim the English Channel, but none as defeating and possibly career­defining as the aborted swim from Cuba.

Nyad and her team plan to head for Key West on June 15 and aside from possibly a training swim or two, there is little left to do but wait. When the weather is right, she will head to Cuba and hit the water.

“She is not going to be in better shape,” said Stoll, who spent 10 years on the pro racquetball circuit. “She is in the peak window and that window will last to the middle of July.”

Waiting is something Nyad and her team know well.

HURRY UP AND WAIT

Nyad’s initial goal was to attempt the swim last year, a stamp to put on her 60th year, and she was ready. Her training had gone better than expected and she described feeling “strong as a bull” following a 24­hour swim last June.

The weather was also perfect and the water was glassy, a condition Nyad said is common for the area in late June/early July. Conditions could not have been better, but there was yet another hurdle.

Her papers were not yet in order.

Coordinating the proper documentation with both the United States and Cuba was slow. As a U.S. citizen, she was prevented from just traveling to Cuba to make the swim and that first perfect window was lost.

July gave way to August, though by then the conditions are not quite as good. More wind, more chop. September came and with that the water temp dropped a little and the threat of hurricanes began to form.

The team still held out hope into October, but the pieces never quite fell together. The window had closed.

She had the papers, but no place to swim.

“I think everything was go last year; I think everyone was up,” Stoll said. “And then it was crushing to learn that the hurricanes had just come and it was one, and next, next, next.”

The team took out a map and began figuring 100­mile swims in the area, but those dreams were hollow.

“It’s not the point,” Nyad said. “Cuba is magic for me.”

Nyad proceeded to take care of her visas for 2011, but Stoll wasn’t convinced until her friend finally broke down emotionally. She said that dealing with the bitter disappointment of being so ready and getting so close was necessary for Nyad to give it another go.

A three­-month break before returning to training brings Nyad into this summer a year older, about seven pounds heavier and probably in better shape.

“What is shocking me is that it’s easier than last year,” Nyad said. “I think the base is so strong. … I have that year­and­a­half behind me so I’ve just gotten stronger and bigger. I feel that I just touch the water and I’m flying through it.”

NYAD’S NAVY

Nyad’s is the name that will go down in the books but it is a small navy that will make it successful.

Stoll is the lead of a smaller team of six personal handlers for Nyad. They will deal with everything from a quick drink or a swimsuit change or simple human contact in the middle of the night when Nyad is bored, tired, irritable or delusional from the exhaustion created by no sleep and constant exertion.

An escort boat to Nyad’s left uses a total of four drivers with two on at a time and each takes a two­-hour shift at the wheel. A kayaker a few feet to her right will carry the Shark Shield, which casts an elliptical electronic field to repel sharks.

Traveling behind is the so­called mother ship where the support team will be able to sleep, shower or relax during the approximate 60­hour journey.

All except one.

“If she can be up that long, I can be up that long,” Stoll said. “It is three days of my life. I wouldn’t forgive myself if something happened.”

What Nyad cannot do for the swim to be officially recorded is to use a wetsuit or fins or any type of flotation device. She can’t hold onto the boat and her handlers cannot prop her up in the water.

Observers will represent the International Swimming Hall of Fame, the World Open Water Swimming Association and FINA, the international governing body for aquatic sports.

If successful, Nyad’s swim will be the longest unassisted ocean swim.

Stoll will coordinate the escort boat and keep time to ensure Nyad is taking breaks about every 90 minutes, though the swimmer would opt to go longer.

Sharks are a concern as are jellyfish and particularly the Portuguese Man ‘o War, but it’s dehydration that is top of mind and reason for the scheduled breaks.

Nyad lost about 30 pounds during her ’78 attempt and is not expected to lose more than seven this time around. Strict adherence to the timetable will ensure she consumes a variety of performance drinks that will supply the necessary sugars and electrolytes and maybe a little protein.

That might also include some peanut butter or chocolate milk and partly that decision will depend on Nyad as she treads water and sips from a tube. Her handlers want to keep her happy and understand the challenge of being in the water. Unlike a runner on land, she cannot swim and drink at the same time.

“When she does break we have to really say drink, drink, drink, drink, drink. And she has to drink beyond what is really comfortable for her,” said friend and physician Dr. Michael Broder, who is leading the medical team. “If she were to drink to her desire, she would be under­hydrated, for sure.”

The requisite amount is between 18­20 ounces per stop.

SUCCESS BEYOND MEASURE

Nyad leaves no doubt she believes she will make it and Stoll exudes even greater confidence, though it is apparent, too, they both feel the game has already been won.

To get to this point is achievement itself. Nyad is fully aware she has been handed an opportunity nearly unheard of for athletes. Most careers are done by age 30, as was hers.

Maybe you get a five­-year pass. Another 10 is rare. Thirty years? Forget it, and she’s trying to do something her 29­-year-­old body could not do.

“For her to even contemplate swimming this far at the age of 61 is frankly shocking,” said founder of Open Water Source, Steve Munatones, who will officially observe if his schedule obliges. “For her to pull it off logistically, operationally and physically, it is mind­boggling.”

It’s the journey that pushes Nyad, one that was fueled by anger in her earlier years in swimming after she was sexually abused by a coach. That rage has been replaced by love, she said, as the mellowing affects of her 61 years and losing her mother have shifted her perspective.

There was something she had, may still have and is not willing to take for granted.

“I feel like I’m swimming more with the awe of the universe and the delight in this life that we get to live and the feelings that we have ­­ the experiences,” Nyad said.

Experience will carry Nyad, so will talent, determination, resolve and a healthy dose of ego. She will push herself further than most humans will ever fathom.

If she walks upon U.S. soil after two-­and-­a-­half days swimming alone at sea, it will be one of the greatest sporting achievements ever.

If she fails, it will still be a success.

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