To find space for contemplation
To see the turtles
To get a paycheck
Diana Nyad is a special kind of swimmer. She is the kind of swimmer who, at twenty-six years old, was possessed to swim uninterrupted around the island of Manhattan. She is the kind who swam over a hundred miles, three years later, at age twenty-nine, from the Bahamas to Florida. She is the kind who sets records not concerned with speed or medals but rather with endurance and pluck. Nyad established herself as a world-class distance-swimmer in the 1970s, when she was in her twenties (she appeared on The Johnny Carson Show, if that is any indication of her past renown), and in 2010, after thirty years out of the water, decided to give the sport another go. This time she had her sights set on a goal even harder and more ambitious: swimming continuously from Cuba to Florida. That’s over one hundred miles, sixty hours, and about two hundred thousand strokes. At the time, she was sixty years old.
I learned about Nyad just like most other people: through the swell of press that surrounded her attempts at swimming this distance. Since announcing her aim, Nyad has given many interviews and granted over a hundred press requests of various kinds (I contacted Nyad for this piece through several members of her press team). As I began to follow her story more closely, I tracked her in the New York Times, Time magazine, the Huffington Post, ESPN, the Los Angeles Times, NPR, and scores of other media outlets. I watched her multiple CNN specials with Sanjay Gupta without once getting up, and her 2011 TED talk after that. As I did more research, I became increasingly gun-shy about speaking to her. In the wake of all of this public exposure, I wondered, was there anything original to ask Nyad? And would I be any match for her commanding personality, so evident in her television specials and her own radio program, The Score? I swam on the morning of our interview to get my mind into shape. The answers to my questions turned out to be: yes (to the first) and no (to the second). Our interview was at once willful and efficient, just as I imagine her swims to be.
THE BELIEVER: You stopped swimming almost three decades ago, when you turned thirty. Do you think that being prone to extreme habits runs both ways? As in, is the quality that allowed you to swim for eighty-nine hours the same as the one that allowed you to stop abruptly? Another way of asking this same question is: why do you think you didn’t become a recreational swimmer?
DIANA NYAD: I think that any serious, world-class swimmer will tell you that it’s a sport of discipline. Once they give it up, a lot of those people never swim again, or it takes them ten, twenty, thirty years to try. I know a lot of former golfers, for instance, who, when they are done formally competing in their sport, still go out and hit the ball with friends on the weekends. But swimmers who have really gone to the mat, put in that difficult, disciplined time for a minimum of a decade—no swimmer gets to be world-class without a minimum of a decade of commitment—are not that way. In 1972, Mark Spitz was the greatest swimmer in the world. But since quitting the sport, he didn’t swim for over a decade. He was drained. It didn’t take some big vision for me not to swim. I was just ready.