Labor Day, September 2, 2013
Fifty-two hours, fifty-four minutes, eighteen seconds.
A woman swimming in a bathing suit (not a wetsuit) in cold ocean water, surrounded by lethal jellyfish and worrying about sharks. Fighting the resistance of the Gulf Stream. Not stopping to take a nap. Finally hearing her best friend’s voice announce: “Those are the Lights of Key West.” Walking out of the water surrounded by a phalanx of friends and crew, because if anyone—even a well-meaning, eager fan—touches her before she exits the water completely, the swim doesn’t count.
Such was Diana Nyad’s epic swim from Cuba to Florida, which she details in her inspiring new book, Find a Way. Nyad, a champion swimmer in her youth, had always wanted to make the swim from Cuba to the U.S., but the era’s politics (and swim technology) kept her from her goal. Cuba remained her ideal swim, irreplaceable by swims around Manhattan or other ocean quests. At age 60—after 30 years away from swimming—Nyad decided to pursue her ultimate quest.
Nyad set to work, finding navigators and ocean experts, perfecting her training and her swim stroke. She set off from Cuba five times before finally completing that swim in 2013. After four tries, most of the world deemed Nyad’s goal impossible to meet. With steely determination, however, Nyad took lessons from the first four failures. She learned new information that brought her closer to her goal. The world’s best jellyfish expert joined the crew and developed a special goo that coated Nyad’s body at night and protected her from the painful and life-threatening stings that ended the initial quests.
It is encouraging to learn that Nyad finds herself a better endurance athlete in her sixties than she was as a young woman. Many 24-hour swims are part of the training for a 52-hour swim! Did you know that it takes “seven hours on the nose” to sing all the lyrics to the Beatles’ song, Ticket to Ride, 210 times without stopping? Or that you can count 60 x 60 stroke blocks per hour to while away the time? Nyad does that in six hour chunks: an hour of 60 x 60 in English, an hour in German, an hour in Spanish, an hour in French, then an hour of half English, half German, and an hour of half Spanish, half French. That counting gets you to “precisely” six hours. According to Nyad, “I never lose count. It takes a certain mindset.”
Regular H-G readers may be interested to learn that Nyad is an abuse survivor—first at the hands of her father, and then her high school swim coach. The details are sadly familiar. Although the high school principal knew of the coach’s abuse, he never revealed it publicly. Although the coach was fired, he moved onto prominent Olympic swim coaching positions. Even the managing editor of Sports Illustrated said that “everybody in the swimming world knew of this coach’s sex crimes and would shake their heads that he got away with it for so long.” Forty years after Nyad’s abuse, accusations of new molestations to girls by this coach arose. The statutes of limitations stood in the way of justice for Nyad and many other swimmers.
Nyad powerfully explains that as a young woman and athlete the abuse affected her interior world, making her angry, self-berating, and driven to prove her worth even to strangers. “Now, having the perspective of years lived to look back at my twenties and thirties and forties, I realize I spent much of my time, too much of my time, in a determined rage to validate that I was more than a female sex-crime victim.” Shame about the abuse silenced Nyad for many years. Fortunately for her readers, however, “I do talk publicly about that time in my life, because implicit in doing so is the message that going through that ordeal doesn’t have to keep an individual from becoming a strong, happy person.”
During the agonizing quest to meet her goal, Nyad learned that “[s]uccess comes down to four factors:
One: Physical preparation. Training. You are truly the only thing you have complete control over. No stone unturned.
Two: Know everything possible about the elements, the obstacles. Knowledge is power.
Three: Surround yourself with brilliant and honorable people.
Four: Unshakable faith. Go so far as defiance. Refuse to accept limitations and mediocrity. I won’t let anybody tell me I can’t touch the stars, because I just might get there. And I will surely never get there if I don’t keep trying.
It’s as Thomas Edison said it:
‘Our greatest weakness is giving up. The most certain way to success is to try one more time.’”
She did, and that fifth time worked.