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Just Keep Swimming

October 23, 2015

At 64, Diana Nyad swam for 52 hours, 54 minutes and 18 seconds nonstop

A review of Find a Way: One Wild and Precious Life by Diana Nyad. This review was published in the Wall Street Journal on October 23. 2015.

I first met Diana Nyad in 1982 on the eve of the first 3,000-mile nonstop transcontinental bicycle Race Across America (RAAM). She was covering the race for ABC’s Wide World of Sports; I was riding in it. I knew of her 28-mile swim around Manhattan, her 102-mile open-ocean swim from North Bimini in the Bahamas to Juno Beach, Fla., and her unsuccessful attempt to swim from Cuba to Florida. So at a pre-race dinner in Los Angeles, with my nerves in my throat about undertaking my first transcontinental crossing, I asked her what it was like being a long-distance swimmer and what kept her going through both success and failure.

I don’t remember her exact words. But the single-minded intensity and strength of will that came through in her presence inspired me over the next 10 days to make it to New York.

Diana Nyad is a force of personality that anyone who meets her or hears her speak never forgets. This drive and dynamism is well captured in the title of her moving memoir Find a Way. She has—and her book shows us how we all can.

The sport of long-distance open-ocean swimming is like no other. RAAM riders take periodic motorhome stops for hot showers and meals. Tour de France riders eat and sleep and get massaged in hotels between stages. Even Mt. Everest climbers stop and rest and sleep in tents, sometimes for days. Ms. Nyad’s sport allows none of this. In her four attempts to make the crossing from Cuba to Florida between 2011 and 2013—the narrative thread of her book—she was not permitted to even hang on to the side of the kayaks that trailed her, much less climb aboard the lead catamaran for a rest break. She had to tread water to keep herself afloat while eating, drinking, adjusting fogged-over goggles, or donning anti-jellyfish gear to ward off the deadly box jellies whose stings ended her 2011 and 2012 attempts.

While swimming, Ms. Nyad’s head came out of the water to breath 52 times per minute in between the approximately 200,000 strokes of the 110.86-mile trip. But unlike ultra-marathon athletes and alpinists, she took in no magnificent scenery. She spent most of her time staring into the inky-black abyss, broken only by an underwater streamer dangling from a pole deployed from her support boat, which at night was lit by LED lights to guide her in a straight line as waves and currents constantly directed her away from her goal of the Florida keys. Sharks could be lurking meters away and she’d never know unless her anti-shark team armed with electric field generators alerted her. Nyad narrates a typical evening stretch:

The waves are slapping all night long. It’s exhausting to press hard with my right hand to push my face high above the surface every breath. Because I can’t judge the feel of the waves on my face, I am thwacked by walls of seawater. I gag. I vomit right into the mask. It’s very difficult, now that my fingers have lost both dexterity and tensile strength—a normal occurrence after many hours swimming in the ocean but magnified by the latex gloves—to pinch the underside of the mask material, pry my teeth from the retainers, and lift it above my nose to clear the vomit. I swim through the entire night, violently seasick. I’m not even capable of looking for daylight.

As most of the world knows (media coverage was extensive), in 2013 Ms. Nyad finally made it to Florida on her fourth try, in 52 hours, 54 minutes and 18 seconds, for an average speed of 2.1 mph. It is the longest unaided open ocean swim in history, and she did it at age 64. Find a Way, however, is not just a recounting of that successful crossing, but also covers the three previous failures and how she dealt with them, with many thoughtful reflections on relationships, the human condition, and how lives turn out, which I found most valuable given the fact that most of us will fail many times in our lives, especially if we undertake formidable goals.

To that extent, Diana Nyad is far more than just a swimmer. She’s a journalist, NPR travelogue reporter, author and motivational speaker (her two TED talks have 3.7 million views). She is also gay, and an atheist, and she handles both with grace and honesty. Ms. Nyad recounts her loves and heartaches here.

She was in a decade-long relationship with a woman she calls the love of her life, but after that ended in 1994 she hasn’t found a partner to match that intense level of intimacy. A possible reason that also drives her passion for athletic pain is the gross and inappropriate sexual fondling of her that began when she was five by her father, a con man and raconteur who finally skipped town and country (and family) ahead of his creditors when Nyad was 14. The memoirist tries to find some good in “that conscienceless bastard for his outlandish and engaging spirit” and convince herself that “weeding out the good from the bad” is “part of our growth, isn’t it?” Maybe, but there is no good to be found in Nyad’s high school swim coach, who on multiple occasions molested her at his home, in his office, in the bathroom…anywhere he thought he could get away with it, grabbing her breasts and attempting to enter her, which Nyad fought off with her “clenched, steely flex, legs tight together,” rage welling up that she subsequently channeled into becoming the world’s greatest endurance swimmer.

In a chapter entitled “Atheist in Awe” she recalls a trip to the Amazon in which her hosts’ puppy went missing for five days. Ms. Nyad was especially sympathetic because she had a dog at home who died during this trip, leaving her feeling powerless and distraught. “I was helpless. I wasn’t there to console her,” she writes. Later that night she couldn’t sleep, so she went out into an open field to write in her journal about her beloved canine, Moses. All of a sudden, her hosts’ missing puppy appeared out of dark and crawled into her lap. “I’m quite sure the interpretation could easily be made that this little puppy was some kind of sign from the universe, Moses’s spirit reincarnated for me to hold close,” she reflects on the human propensity to believe that everything happens for a reason. “To me, it was a sad passing followed by a happy coincidence, a cue to embrace the chaos, in itself a paradox of joy and sorrow, life and death existing in the same moment, neither canceling the other out. Just part of the wondrous, random world, not something meant to be.”

The story and her elegant deconstruction of it reminds me of Oprah Winfrey’s response upon discovering Ms. Nyad is an atheist, during an interview with her after the successful Cuba swim. “But you’re in the awe,” Oprah responded, as if one can’t be an atheist in awe. “I don’t understand why anybody would find a contradiction in that,” Ms. Nyad responded. “I can stand at the beach’s edge with the most devout Christian, Jew, Buddhist—go on down the line—and weep with the beauty of this universe and be moved by all of humanity. All the billions of people who have lived before us, who have loved and hurt and suffered. So to me, my definition of God is humanity and is the love of humanity.”

Ms. Nyad is an elegant memoirist and her book is a joy and inspiration to read. And though she is a multifaceted person, the Cuba swim, she writes, “has come to emblemize all I believe in, my worldview. Reaching stroke after stroke toward this particular horizon is my version of Browning’s reaching for heaven. The vision of it, the planning, the training, the unwavering belief in the face of overwhelming odds—this swim demands and defines the person I want to be. The person I can admire.” We should all strive to be the person we can admire, which is why our reach should exceed our grasp.

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