Diana Nyad: On her New Documentary, Making Peace With her Past, and the Relentless Pursuit of her Extreme Dream
Diana Nyad's belief in the impossible.
An 'extreme dream' is something that is probably impossible. But—it just might be possible.
Those words of wisdom, spoken by an 11-year-old fan of marathon swimmer Diana Nyad, are the foundation on which Nyad has built her legacy. The 63-year-old has never been one to shy away from a challenge or give in to the collective belief that something can’t be done. Just ask her nephew Timothy Wheeler, director of “The Other Shore”—a documentary about Nyad that chronicles her recent attempts to resurrect her dream of swimming from Cuba to Florida, at the age of 60.
“Diana’s always done what is authentic to her, and that is what people gravitate to—not living in fear of the naysayers or what people are going to think,” Wheeler explained. “[People] are latching onto that authenticity…they are identifying with her authentic mission and what she really wants to do, despite what anyone else says.”
Nowhere was Nyad’s authenticity more evident than on her recent morning walk with fans in Austin, held the day after “The Other Shore” received a standing ovation at its SXSW world premiere. Winding through the streets downtown, surrounded by an enthusiastic crowd, Nyad made a point of greeting each walker personally, encouraging them to share about their own extreme dreams. She reflected on the last three years of her life, saying, “I have never been so happy, so strong, so vital as I am at age 63.”
The pursuit of an extreme dream is a subject that Nyad knows a thing or two about. She was on top of the swimming world in the 1970s, smashing world record after world record for her long-distance open-water swims. However, at the height of her success, it was her dream swim—Cuba to Florida—that ultimately (and cruelly) eluded her. Forced to abandon her attempt by the current, high swells, and stinging jellyfish, Nyad placed her dream on a shelf and eventually hung up her goggles at the age of 30—but not before setting one more world record in 1979, for the longest unassisted ocean swim (the Bahamas to Florida) in history.
Making a Comeback—In Her Sixties
By anyone’s standards, Nyad has accomplished more physically than most humans could ever conceive of. And yet, in 2009, on her sixtieth birthday, something began to tug at her soul. There were regrets; there was discontent; and suddenly Nyad’s Cuba-to-Florida dream—dormant for 30 years—began to percolate. What if she could prove that age imposed no limits on the human spirit? What if she went back and demonstrated that it is never too late to chase down a dream—no matter how extreme it is?
That defining moment inspired Wheeler and his crew to document Nyad’s return, giving fans an intimate glimpse into her journey. After three reattempts of her epic swim, Nyad has yet to reach the other shore, but that fact has not stopped her from continuing to propel herself into the water, determined to conquer the ocean and finally realize her dream. It has also not stopped countless fans from continuing to dream along with her.
According to Nyad, one of the most challenging aspects of making such an ambitious comeback has been acclimating to the long hours of training, as well as to the changes in her body. “I actually feel stronger and more able to withstand duress than I was back then [in the seventies]. But I’m also slower,” she mused. “Speed doesn’t matter really in the end when you’re swimming these long things, but in the Gulf Stream it does…in terms of beating that current and getting across.”
Nyad feels that the advantages her age has brought her have far outweighed the disadvantages: “Mostly it’s the mental…I feel like I’m at a prime. For sure, some physical things change. But I just think the wisdom and the emotional maturity…life is easier to handle.”
Making Peace With the Past
The irony of life is that wisdom and emotional maturity often arise from personal challenges—and Nyad has had plenty. For years she has acknowledged being sexually molested as a young teen; however, she has since become guarded in allowing that story to be told. She chose to depart from this self-imposed restriction in “The Other Shore,” speaking candidly about the guilt, shame, and emotional scarring she suffered during that time. “[Tim Wheeler] really has found the authentic truth of my story, my life, the swimming,” she said. “The sexual abuse story I never let anybody tell anymore…I only tell it because it’s such an epidemic and there are so many young people who need to get aware that they can say no and they can be strong.”
“That was the gift that Diana gave to this film and that made this film,” added Wheeler. “It separates it from a lot of the other pieces that have been done out there. But her allowing us to really see everything was a big part of the process.”
Nyad no longer feels a victim of those experiences, although she admitted that tapping into that part of her past for the film was difficult and painful. “I don’t think you ever can deny any experience of your life; if you are, then you’re really living in denial,” she asserted. “I am very aware of everything that’s happened to me and whatnot, but I go out and swim divorced from that, just as I go through life now, divorced from the person who was molested and mistreated.”
When prodded on exactly how that healing has occurred for her, Nyad explained that it has come through therapy, strong friendships, and self-awareness. “It’s years of living and being loved by people,” she reflected. “Every child takes on everything as their fault; it’s taken me many years to garner the wisdom and deep down really understand that none of it was my fault. I’m no victim…I’m at that stage that I want to live every day and move forward, rather than reaching back; I’ve reached back enough.”
Nyad is certainly not reaching back to her past as she dives into 2013. She has an ambitious fundraiser planned for Memorial Day weekend in May: A two-lane pool will be installed in New York City’s Times Square, where Nyad will swim for 48 continuous hours, raising money for a Hurricane Sandy relief fund. She hopes that other celebrities and champions of the cause will join her to swim in the other lane. “I want it to be one of these exciting events that people talk about: ‘Do you remember that woman swimming in Times Square; did you see Mayor Bloomberg got in with her; everybody wanted to be in the pool for a few minutes; look how much money they raised!’” she exclaimed.
Although her focus at present is on successfully executing her fundraiser, the possibility of another Cuba-to-Florida swim this summer lurks in the background for Nyad and her loyal followers. She met recently with a specialist to design a silicone mask that will protect her face from her nemesis: the box jellyfish. She hopes that this mask, along with a specially made suit and gloves, will keep her sting free during the trek. Nyad has also recommenced her grueling training swims in the ocean and is ensuring that the proper paperwork is in place in Cuba—just in case. “I just finished these 12-hour swims in St. Maarten because this body’s got to be ready for the ocean again; I’m talking to that Cuba team [to ensure] that the permits are there,” she confessed. With those elements falling into place, another Cuba-to-Florida crossing seems likely.
However, Nyad is considering first making a brief detour: “I am not clear yet in my mind whether I’m going to [first] try to break the world record in the ocean somewhere else besides Cuba, where it isn’t quite that replete with mathematical odds against you,” she mused. If Nyad does indeed attempt to break this other world record, then her pursuit of a fifth Cuba swim this summer will depend on whether her body will be able to bounce back in time. “Is there time, from late May to do 48 hours in the pool and recover, and do a 100-plus mile swim in the ocean somewhere and recover from that, and still get to Cuba in this one summer? I don’t know how that’s going to play out, but that’s my idea, that trifecta,” she said.
Even if Nyad does manage to recover in time and finally succeeds at a Cuba-to-Florida swim, she faces the possibility that she will no longer be the first woman to do so: Australian swimmer Chloe McCardel recently announced her intentions to attempt the swim this June. “I can’t pretend it wouldn’t dig a little bit if she makes it,” admitted Nyad. “And I will congratulate her if she makes it, but would that really stop me? Would that make me say, ‘Oh well, somebody else has done it, so it’s not my dream anymore.’ It’s just not the way it is.”
Peace on the Other Shore
Reflecting on Nyad’s last three years, one can easily raise an existential question: Can she take satisfaction in the journey itself, or will she not be at peace until she touches the other shore? “So far it’s the latter,” admitted Nyad. “I’ve gotten in this terrific shape; I’ve gotten to know this territory; nobody else knows it better than I do and my team. Each time we go, we’re more and more prepared to deal with those unknowns out there…I believe it’s possible for me to make it across.”
Nyad has learned the hard way to not make grandiose statements about the odds of her success. And yet, she still believes that the only way to approach her swims is with an air of confidence. “You’re never going to make it if you prepare yourself for not making it,” she asserted. “So the only possibility is making it.”
The downside of such an attitude, Nyad admitted, is that it does little to ease the crushing disappointment of a failed attempt. “When you don’t make it, it takes the wind out of you,” she said. “It’s hard for me to see myself crying [in “The Other Shore”], with that distorted face and the pain…life’s disappointments when you care a lot are difficult.” Once again, Nyad has come to terms with her disappointment through time—and by the possibility of trying again. “Every boxer who’s ever lain on the canvas knocked out, they say, ‘I’m retired; I’ll never do that again.’ And you give it a little time, for the bruises to heal up, before you try again.”
Ignoring the Naysayers
Critics have called Nyad a woman obsessed; others have deemed her “selfish” or “crazy” to spend such vast amounts of time and money on what seems to many like a futile pursuit. Nyad takes issue with being called selfish: “I don’t get it,” she mused. “Is everything you do selfish? Are you going to spend $80k on a wedding; is that selfish? Should you have given that money somewhere else? Would it be selfish of me to give up the next two years and write a book? And what if a publisher gives me $200k to write a book? I don’t understand why that is [any] more selfish than raising money to do this dream over here…Especially because it seems to do something for other people.”
To elaborate her point: Nyad views her endeavor as science, an experiment in just how far the human body can go. “The guy that broke the sound barrier…I forget what he spent, but I think it was a couple of million, in terms of the research and whatnot. He’s looking at the human potential. I think people look at this [the same way]: Can a human body swim that long, that distance? Are [these jellyfish suits] something that we are going to need one day, just to go swimming off Key West? To me there’s a lot of discovery to it that’s very positive.”
Being called crazy, on the other hand, doesn’t faze Nyad in the least. She simply equates the term with being told that she is dreaming too big. And she has learned to tune out the naysayers. “As Bonnie Stoll (Nyad’s best friend and Cuba expedition handler) said, ‘If anybody could have done it, [Diana] would have done it already; it just can’t be done.’ And I say: Is that a reason not to go again? Are you afraid of failure? Look at the adventure we had. I don’t think it’s a good enough reason.”
The Tipping Point
Nyad is not ready to say just how many tries she has left in her, but she is aware that at some point in the future, she may be ready to move on—regardless of whether she has finally reached the other shore. “There really does—just intellectually, I’m thinking— have to come a point where I can be at peace with saying, ‘Maybe someday somebody will make it, but I don’t know if I want to spend all of my time [attempting it],’” she said. “And if at some point, if I kept trying and failing and trying and failing, surely it would reach a tipping point where it was going the other way. [I could say], ‘It’s ok; I can forgive myself for grasping on to another dream’—but I’m not there right now.”
While still intently focused on her ultimate destination, Nyad does not discount the joy that she and countless others have found in her journey: “Just dreaming of the other shore has brought all kinds of positive, thrilling connections and inspiration for myself and for other people. [If I reach the other shore], I doubt my life will be different. But—” she paused, reclining in her seat with a smile, “I think I’ll wake up [smiling] like this for a while. And I’ll say, ‘I stuck with it—I saw those palm trees. What a vision that was.’”
Click here to view photos from the SXSW World Premiere of "The Other Shore" and Nyad's morning walk through downtown Austin.