Long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad

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The world-class athlete reflects on the mental, physical and spiritual strength that brought her to her goal.

In the 1970's, Diana Nyad was the greatest long-distance swimmer in the world. She broke numerous records, including for crossing between the Bahamas and Florida and a 50-year-old mark for circling Manhattan Island. Recently, at age 64, she made history when, in her fifth bid to swim from Havana to Florida, she plunged off the Cuban shore without a shark cage and made it all the way across. She's also established herself in TV, radio and print, filing sports reports for Fox and ABC, hosting her own show and writing three books. Nyad began swimming in the seventh grade and is in the International Women's Sports and the National Women's Sports Halls of Fame.


Tavis: Diana Nyad had tried to swim from Cuba to Florida four times, only to be defeated by strong currents and merciless jellyfish. But she refused to give up, and five times was the charm. She completed the marathon swim without benefit of a shark cage, helped somewhat by a device that electronically warded off those sharks, thankfully.

But no device could substitute for her amazing mental and physical strength that brought her to her goal. Diana Nyad, I am honored to have you on this program.

Diana Nyad: Tavis, thank you so much. The honor’s all mine.

Tavis: No, this is – I wrote this down because I wanted to make sure I got this right. So you were in the water, you swam for 52 hours, 54 minutes, 18.6 seconds, 110.86 miles.

Nyad: That’s it. That’s it. (Laughter) We’ll never forget it.

Tavis: I guess you won’t. Why, why, why, Diana?

Nyad: Really, the answer to – we could go back and talk about the sport and why this sport, but for me, it really wasn’t about the sport. It’s not even really about that record. It’s that I turned 60 a few years ago, hadn’t swum for 30 years. Thirty to 60, no swimming.

I had tried Cuba in my twenties, didn’t make it. It was the one heart dream I had in my imagination.

Tavis: 1978?

Nyad: Yeah, very good, very good. Always a reporter. Didn’t make it, and I must say it’s not like if you and I had been friends for that 30 years I wouldn’t have said to you every day, “Tavis, that’s eating at my gut. I’ve got to, I’ve got to.”

But it was somewhere in the back. It was like God, that was the one that really, that I wanted to make. So I turned 60 and my mom had just died when she was 82, and I was thinking, well, I have about 22 years to live, and we all know you blink your eyes and 10 years go by.

So I thought in 22 years, I don’t want to go down at the end with regrets and living small and being timid and being fearful. I want to be bold, and I’m going to pick something that’s going to wake me up and make me feel alive and alert and take every ounce of unwavering commitment of it.

What will it be? What will I do? Oh my God, could it possibly be I’ll go back to that old dream that’s haunted me? Haven’t swum in 30 years. Will I have the shoulders, will I have the will? Yes, I did.

I’m going to go back and do that Cuba swim that no one’s ever done. Since 1950 they’ve been trying. Not just me, lots of people. So I started training. So why? It’s because when I look at that area of the world on the map, there’s no more famous body of water, given the forbidden land of Cuba.

Tavis: Absolutely.

Nyad: Given all the people who have tried to make it across on rafts. It’s a 100-mile stretch, which for an open ocean swimmer is a long, long way. It’s a big world record. I’m in my sixties. My baby boom fellow generation’s going to say, “Right on.” “You show us the way.”

So there were all kinds of non-swimming things motivating me as well as the sport itself, and I’ll tell you something. Since that day, which was four years ago. That was at 60, and now I’ve tried and tried, and now I’m 64. I have been in the world of unwavering commitment, and it’s made me high.

I’m not doing any more marathon swims, I’m done. But I’m going to live like this, this intensely, alive and alert and awake, until that 82-year-old or whatever it is, until I go.

So it taught me those lessons, and I’m back to – I never was hanging out too much, but now I’m back to being just fully committed every day.

Tavis: There’s so many things that I want to ask, so let me just jump right in. Why walk away from something that you did so much and did so well and love so much? Why walk away from it for 30 years?

Nyad: I was 30, and as a general rule, in the world-class level of sports you don’t see too many quarterbacks, tennis players or whatnot (unintelligible), and it’s generally in my sport too.

There are older people who do things but not at the world-class level. Not at the speed and the tough stuff. So when I was 30, I was pretty burned out. I had done 20 years – first a sprinter, then a distance swimmer. I’d swim all over and swam around Manhattan Island and except for Cuba that I didn’t make – 42 hours.

I was ready. I was getting offers from the “Wide World of Sports” as an announcer. I thought it’s time for me to be an adult, make a living, move on to a profession, and it’s time to retire from sports, 30. I was burned out.

There’s a lot of laps. There’s a lot of back-and-forth, up-and-down, and so I put in four more years now, but it’s a burnout.

Tavis: To your point, you started out as a sprinter, and a health concern shifted you from sprinting to marathoning.

Nyad: Well no, not really, not really.

Tavis: I thought I read somewhere that you had some sort of condition.

Nyad: I did. I had heart disease when I was a kid, when I was 16, endocarditis. I wouldn’t call it life or death, but I did have three months of bed rest. I wasn’t as good a sprinter when I got out of that bed.

Tavis: Right.

Nyad: But I’m not going to sit around here and pretend to you that I was going to be the big Olympic champion. I was just a decent sprinter who had some fairy tale dreams of being the best and going to the Olympic Games. But the truth is, I wasn’t right on that exact precipice. I was just a decent sprinter.

Tavis: So coming back at 64, and you’ve explained that remarkably well and I get that challenge at that age, what made you become a marathoner in the first place?

Nyad: I just had finished that sprint career, and I put a lot of time in in the pool. A friend said to me, “There’s this adventurous sport, just like marathon running.” A lot of the marathon runners, the good ones, who people who bumped up from the 1,500 meters when they were done, whatever, the 5,000 meters they do in the marathon.

Well, I had done that sprint swimming, and then when I turned 20 a friend said to me, “These eccentric people, they go around the world and they swim the Bay of Naples in Italy and they swim the Mar del Plata in Argentina, and they go to Canada.”

The Earth is four-fifths water, and these people basically stand on shores, a gun goes off, and they try to beat each other down rivers, across lakes, and he said, “You’re a swimmer, you’d love the travel, you’d love the character it builds. Give it a try.”

So I went to Lake Ontario, and then I spent the next 10 years, along with graduate school and living, doing that sport.

Tavis: The life of a marathon swimmer is what? Fill in the blank.

Nyad: I couldn’t even say what these young people are doing today. In my day it was seasonal, there was a late spring and summer where you went literally all these places I’m talking about, all around the world, and you had great travel and you really had to dig down to make it across these sometimes cold –

Tavis: Do you make money? How do you live?

Nyad: No. Oh, barely, barely.

Tavis: You’re just – yeah.

Nyad: You’re just poor, like most athletes. All we know is the NFL. Most athletes just can barely pay a little rent and some food money. If you talk to speed skaters and rowers and all the rest of it, so just like one of them. Just doing a sport I loved and was getting a lot out of.

Never thought I’d do it forever, but he Manhattan swim was a kick in the pants. I’m from there, and to swim around Manhattan Island, and it was a beautiful – it was October 6th, just about this time of year.

It was a beautiful day, and people took the day off work and they came down and stood around the Battery. Of course, the World Trade Centers were there at that time.

Tavis: Seven hours and some change, if I recall.

Nyad: 7:57, yeah, which was the fastest at that time for men and women.

Tavis: Yeah, under eight hours.

Nyad: Yeah. So that was a kick in the pants, because there wasn’t a lot of pain to it, it was over quickly. So I remember enjoying that one particularly.

Tavis: As best you can describe it – I gave the numbers a moment ago, and if you just tuned in, 51 hours in the water.

Nyad: Yeah. Well, let’s round it up to 53.

Tavis: Fifty-three, 53. Ooh, excuse me. (Laughter)

Nyad: We don’t want to chop off an entire hour. Come on now.

Tavis: Fifty-three. Yeah, I don’t want to chop off an entire hour, exactly.

Nyad: Don’t forget the 18 seconds.

Tavis: That hour makes it 18.6 seconds. That makes a difference.

Nyad: Mm.

Tavis: What is it like to be in the water for 52 hours?

Nyad: Yeah.

Tavis: With all those elements swimming around you? You got sharks and jellyfish, how do you – just what is that like?

Nyad: There’s the body, and then there’s the mind. You’ve got your emotions. The second night, so I had been in about 40 hours at that point, I was in full-fledged woo, hallucinations. I couldn’t tell what was real. I was hanging on by a thread.

But the body somehow is so trained, and when you’re trained, your body says come on, come on, come on, let’s go, let’s get back. Just all of a sudden it just – this rote, metronomic stroke just starts back up.

I must say I was proud of my body. I wasn’t even sore when the whole thing was over. But what the mind had been through, it was definitely – for a few days it was like foggy.

Tavis: So we saw some pictures, and I’m sure they’ll put them back up again, Jose will, in a second here.

Nyad: Okay.

Tavis: But give me a sense – you start out in Cuba. Give me a sense of who all these people are in the water with you, these kayak – just give me a sense of who’s hanging out with you (unintelligible).

Nyad: I got a flotilla. I got a team of 40 –

Tavis: You have a flotilla – I like that.

Nyad: Yeah, yeah. I got a team of 44 people.

Tavis: Okay.

Nyad: Could never, ever do it without them. So I’m swimming right next to an escort boat.

Tavis: Right.

Nyad: See them, when they hand me stuff off the side of the boat? I’m swimming next to that boat, and then over to the next side of me are these – that’s my escort boat right there, and down, can you see down on the edge near the water someone’s hanging out there?

Tavis: Right.

Nyad: Well, that’s my team of handlers. Up top, see the shark guy?

Tavis: Right.

Nyad: He’s spotting. He’s up there, there’s two guys up top. They’re looking. In the daytime they’ve got very good visibility. They can see as far as a mile away –

Tavis: For sharks.

Nyad: – for oceanic white tips underneath. The two kayakers that you see there, they’ve got electronic shields underneath the water that dispel sharks too. So that’s me over the side of that – there’s kind of a white ribbon in there.

Anyway, the kayaks are protecting me from sharks with their electronic shields. The shark divers are up top. At night when it’s pitch black, they’re in the water with me, and they’re looking for large eyes underneath. If the eyes are this far apart, they know it’s a big predator. If the eyes are closer together, it’s a smaller animal and they’re not quite as worried.

Tavis: So if they had spotted one or did, what were they supposed to do?

Nyad: They’re ready. We have this – we don’t use any fatal gear.

Tavis: Right.

Nyad: We have on guns, nothing. But they use this – it looked like a big wire coat hanger, but it’s a big piece of PVC piping with a hard tennis ball at the end, and they’re just ready. If that shark comes up with the teeth flaring, they’re ready to poke it in the nose.

It’s very sensitive in its sonar, and usually if there’s some aggressive action like that, it would be like, whoa, I don’t want to take a chance going in for that, because I might get hurt.

Tavis: Right.

Nyad: We also have this little aerosol can. It’s called Repel Shark, and literally it looks like a shaving can. All that’s great protection, but if a real dangerous moment comes, a shark comes and brushes me and the next circle is going to be the teeth, they take that can, they shake it, and they throw it in the water next to me.

It makes a big, milky white, horrible-smelling liquid in the water, and the shark cannot tolerate it. So we save that for –

Tavis: Wow.

Nyad: – for moments of desperation, but we didn’t use it at all on this swim. But we had it. We had it with us, yeah.

Tavis: What was the most desperate moment for you? I don’t mean physically, we’ll come to that. Not for you internally. What was the most desperate moment of the swim, though?

Nyad: I had two. The first one was physical. It was the first night. I had decided to protect myself, finally, from those box jellyfish.

Tavis: Oh, yeah.

Nyad: The most deadly animal in the ocean, more than any sea snake, more than any ray. This has a venom that Tavis, you wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy. This is a venom that doesn’t just sting your skin. The second it touches, its harpoons shoot in a venom like with hundreds of thousands of harpoons, and it goes right to your spinal cord, your heart, and your lungs.

It usually takes a fish down within two or three seconds. Sting, the fish is dead. So we’re a little bigger, so we can maybe last through it, but most people die when they’re stung. It’s a fatal sting.

Tavis: Right.

Nyad: So I decided – last year I used pantyhose and surgeon’s gloves. You’re not allowed neoprene, but I wore a tight, like, sprinter’s suit that made out of a Lycra, it’s okay. Little booties.

You’re just covered. It’s hard to swim in all that stuff. Still with the pantyhose, because I had to breathe, only the mouth was open, and just those little lips in that vast ocean, these animals are geniuses.

They’re 600 million years old, and they have six sets of eyes, and they swim at four knots an hour. They’re just – you’re not going to beat them, and they’re everywhere at night.

So they came up last year and stung my lips, and it wasn’t just lips, as I said. I’m feeling like whoa, I’m debilitated. I’m going down, I can’t swim. So they’ve been the end of me several times, and I thought what fool would I be to go back if I didn’t have something more than I had last time?

Tavis: Right.

Nyad: So I had a prosthesist here in L.A., he makes for people who have been hit in the war with grenades or burned up, and they’ve got to protect their faces until they get their skin grafts, he makes these beautiful silicone masks. He made one for me, and it came up and into the mouth so that I could actually –

Tavis: You could breathe out of it, yeah.

Nyad: I could breathe, inhale and exhale with it, but it was tough to swim in. I was taking in salt water. The inside was chopping up my mouth and making big lesions in there that in the salt were tough, but I had it, and it protected me.

But that physical night, 13 hours with that mask that first night, I thought to myself I thought it was a tough cookie and I had all there solve in the world, that nothing was going to keep me across – I’m not sure I’m going to be able to make it through another night with this thing on.

Tavis: You kept it on the entire time?

Nyad: Just the 13 hours at night. They come up at night. They’re photophobic, so they come up at night, and then by the time you’re in full daylight you can take it all off and you’re free. So I love the day and dread the night.

Tavis: Yeah. When was the time in these 52 hours – 53 hours, almost.

Nyad: Yeah, please, please.

Tavis: Yeah, got to get that right, 53. When was the moment, if you recall, where you were the most tired in terms of your stroke, and when was the time when you were stroking and you were just like okay, I got this. When you were, like, really moving.

Nyad: They almost happened back-to-back.

Tavis: Right.

Nyad: There was a storm –

Tavis: Back-to-back?

Nyad: Back-to-back.

Tavis: Wow.

Nyad: Because it happened psychotically.

Tavis: Right.

Nyad: That second night, Sunday, I had been in some I think about 36 hours. I have to look at the logs, but about there. A big storm was coming, the lightning all over the place, and we have a protocol: I go with the shark divers.

They’re never allowed to touch me, ever, but I go with them away from the boats that are getting blown around, 35-mile-an-hour winds. We just have lights and they have flares, and we just tread water, and we just hang out out in the open ocean.

It’s pitch black out, no moon, and they’re great. They’re all around me but never touch me, because you’re never allowed to be held up or anything like that. We’re real careful about the rules.

So I’m out with them, all the boats are getting blown around, and when that was over – it turned out it was an hour and 20 minutes; I had no idea – I was –

Tavis: You treaded water for an hour and 20 minutes?

Nyad: Yeah, and I was hanging on. I thought I saw the Taj Mahal over there. (Laughter) I didn’t think I saw it; I saw it. I said to the guy, I said, “Did you see that? That’s the Taj – well, now – what is that doing over here?”

So I didn’t know what was real, and I was hanging on, like I just couldn’t get it. I’d look in the sky and I’d see giant pine trees like the size of the Milky Way, huge pine trees.

And I’d say to them, and they were like, “Yeah, it’s okay, yeah, there’s the Taj Mahal, the pine trees. Just keep treading water; we’re going to get through this storm.”

Storm gets over, so I was just like oh my God, I was starting to get chilly from not swimming and just treading water. Storm gets over; unbeknownst to me, it was an hour and 20 minutes. I was told that later. The boats come back into configuration, and I said to my trainer, Bonnie, I said, “Bonnie, I’m just – I just don’t know what’s real, I’m just – I guess if I start swimming I’ll get my clarity back again.”

She said, “Wait a second. I want to show you something. Look over there. Look just over to the right in front.” I saw on the surface a white light on the horizon, and I thought the sun’s going to come up soon, so I can take all the jellyfish off. She knew that would make me happy.

She said, “Oh, no, I have better news for you than that. That’s not the sun. That’s the lights of Key West. We’re making it. Daytime tomorrow, you’re there.” So just minutes before I had been –

Tavis: Oh, I get it.

Nyad: – treading water and saying I don’t know if I’m going to make this thing, and now the lights of Key West are there. You can make anything when you know it’s there.

Tavis: Yeah. What did you learn about yourself physically, emotionally, spiritually?

Nyad: That’s a beautiful question. I almost wrote myself a letter and asked somebody at the beach ahead of time to have it there for me, because I told you before I didn’t go into this to – it’s fine if it’s a world record, it’s fine if it’s a big athletic endurance achievement. I don’t turn all that down and I don’t negate caring about that.

But really, I said to myself at 60 you want to stop worrying about things you can’t control. There are the bigger things in this universe, even if you don’t believe in God, per se. There’s nature, there’s energy, there’s friendship that’s bigger than your little life.

During this swim, as hard as I tried to be the disciplined one, the athlete, never without the team – the shark expert, the jellyfish expert, my personal handlers – could we have come across on this expedition.

I worried about the weather. I was in a neurosis about the hurricanes and the east winds. When will we get our chance? Because you can’t do this without some luck. You’ve got to get the weather together.

But why can you worry about all that when you can’t change it all? You just get yourself ready, and then you get your chances or you don’t. But you can’t be neurotic about it and worry about it.

So I learned through this whole thing that you’ve got to think big. Life is fun when you dream big and think big, instead of thinking the smallest of yourself, like, “Oh, I can’t do that.”

I also learned that failure is okay. It’s that Teddy Roosevelt quote that’s just vaguely, well, you go ahead and be the critic. You sit outside the ring and you say boy, look at him, he looks bad.

Or you get in the ring and you’re bold and you’re fierce and you’re not timid, and you fail and you fall down over and over again, but you still get up and you stay in the ring. That’s the person I want to be.

This swim proved to me that that’s who I am, and I just want to be a person who never, ever gives up.

Tavis: Yeah.

Nyad: Yeah.

Tavis: You mentioned this earlier in our conversation. I want to come back to it because it was so moving for me and I want to give you a chance to kind of expound a bit more, Diana.

The success of this effort, you expect to impact your life in what ways going forward?

Nyad: In the ways we’re talking about. Like so many people say to me, “Well, what are you going to do now? Are you going to swim across the Pacific Ocean?” I say, “No, of course not.”

Tavis: You’re done with that. You’re done with that.

Nyad: Yeah, I’m done with that. I’m going to do some charity-raising swims, like New York City a month from now, raise money for Hurricane Sandy victims who are still homeless.

So I’ll be in Herald Square in a very cool pop-up pool and I’m going to do 48 hours, and I’m going to ask all kinds of celebrities, such as yourself, to get in the pool next to me and do a few laps. (Laughter)

Tavis: Black folk can’t swim.

Nyad: No – well, I’d like to see you try.

Tavis: Bad joke. Don’t send me letters, I know. (Laughter) It was a bad joke.

Nyad: You could try.

Tavis: I have no buoyancy. Yeah.

Nyad: Anyway, all these other people will swim next to me for a few minutes at a time. In the end we hand over that big check to Hurricane Sandy victims. That’s going to be a little bit of my legacy as I go along, besides the other things I want to do in life.

But I just became that person I guess I’ve always been, but this time I just said to myself don’t forget this. You may just be doing your one-woman show or helping your friends down the block, but do it like this: Think big, dream big, don’t leave anything out there.

Go to bed at night flat-out exhausted and get up the next day and grab that tiger by the tail one more time. That’s how I’m feeling right now sitting next to you.

Tavis: What kind of responses have you gotten from people, but specifically people in your age range?

Nyad: Yeah, I heard –

Tavis: What are you hearing?

Nyad: I heard from one guy – of course, frankly, this was last year, when I didn’t make it, but I’m trying like heck. He wrote me and said, “You know what, I’m about your age and I was the Harvard Summa cum laude graduate who’s going to write the Great American Novel.

Well, things happen. My wife died as soon as we had our fourth child, cancer, and I’m left raising four children by myself, making a living. That novel went up in the attic, in the back of some drawer.

Now my kids are getting up and out and I’m watching you, and I thought, is it too late for me to write that great American novel? Heck, no. I’ve dragged it out of the attic and I’m at the computer.

So I hear from people saying we’re not done. When you’re 90 you can go on the front porch and watch the sunset and just kind of recollect your days, but 64 is vital, and I feel – as a matter of fact, I feel I’m at the absolute prime of my life right now, in every way, even physically.

Tavis: I hope this doesn’t come off as sexist, but when you walked in you were kind enough to give me a hug, and as I was squeezing you, I was just kind of like checking you out.

Nyad: Yeah.

Tavis: I was like, you got a (unintelligible). I felt it. (Laughter)

Nyad: Yeah, yeah. So I want to keep that going too.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah, I ain’t mad at you about that. Let me circle back before my time is out. You talked about the weather, and how the weather has to cooperate, of course, for you to (unintelligible).

Nyad: Yeah.

Tavis: How did you choose the time and the day that you were going to do this?

Nyad: We did this over Labor Day weekend. I arrived in Key West ready, primed and ready on June 25th, so we waited two full months, constantly every other day, every fourth, fifth day, hey, it looks like maybe the window – no, it’s not going to be long enough, because we need three full days of decent, not easterly winds that go up on the (unintelligible).

Then the weather is okay, but the Gulf Stream isn’t behaving. It’s going crazy and eddies, and it’s (unintelligible). You have to get – that’s a reason no one’s done this swim, is not only the jellyfish and the sharks and the distance, but all the conditions are very unpredictable and very hard to get them all in one day together.

Tavis: I’m thinking about the irony of the lesson you learned about letting go of things that you cannot control when the feat that you accomplished was done against things that you could not control.

Nyad: Yeah, yeah, totally. You need some luck on your side as well, and I think that’s a good lesson too. You can’t press Mother Nature. You can’t even press your own emotions. You just have to be who you are and go with it.

Tavis: Yeah. So you happy? You content?

Nyad: You know what’s odd, I actually feel more elation from just being done with it, after all the roller coaster of emotions and the crushing disappointments of not making it four times, and letting people down, and training again. The training is grueling.

I feel actually more elation from that, that it’s finally over and I stuck with it, than having done it, having the big victory.

Tavis: In case you tuned in late, 52 hours, 54 minutes, 18.6 seconds, 110.86 miles. That would be Diana Nyad, from Cuba to Key West. It’s been great talking to you.

Nyad: May I say?

Tavis: You certainly may.

Nyad: All through my life I’ve done a lot of interviews, and there are a lot of great interviews out there, but I’ve been a fan of yours and watch your show, but to sit with you, you are a sincerely, intensely engaged, and there aren’t too many interviewers of that ilk.

They’re thinking about how they look, what’s next, but you have been right here with me, and I really appreciate that respect.

Tavis: I appreciate it. I enjoyed talking to you.

Nyad: Thank you.

Tavis: Come back any time.

Nyad: Okay.

Tavis: You can come co-host if you want to. (Laughter)

Nyad: I’ll be here, then.

Tavis: Okay, anytime. That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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Last modified: October 7, 2013 at 1:19 pm