Diana Nyad talks Cuba-to-Florida swim, upcoming New York fundraiser

U.S. long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad , 64, walks to dry sand, completing her swim from Cuba as she arrives in Key West, Florida, September 2, 2013.
U.S. long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad , 64, walks to dry sand, completing her swim from Cuba as she arrives in Key West, Fla., on Sept 2.

Earlier this month, Diana Nyad accomplished her dream of swimming from Cuba to Florida at the age of 64 and became the first person to complete the 110-mile swim without a shark cage.

Nyad first tried to swim from Cuba to Florida at the age of 28 but was not able to complete it; she tried again two times in 2011, once in 2012 and finally completed her journey this month. During her attempts to chase her dream, Nyad had dangerous encounters with deadly jellyfish and rough currents.

For her next feat, from Oct. 8 to 10, Nyad will swim continuously for 48 hours in a 120-foot-long two-lane lap pool at Herald Square in New York City for Swim for Relief, raising funds for Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts. Celebrities, media figures and everyday New Yorkers are invited to swim alongside Nyad, who circumnavigated Manhattan in 1975.

Nyad spoke to Metro about her long journey to finally completing her Cuba-to-Florida swim and her upcoming charity exhibition in the center of New York City.

Metro: How did you decide to spearhead this event?

Nyad: It’s been almost a year since Hurricane Sandy has passed, and like millions of people around the world, I took compassion with the victims. This is my hometown, New York City, and I thought, ‘My god’ – I felt for those poor people; thousands of people were affected. We donate money and do what we can to relieve them and we go on with our lives. But it’s not over for them. They’re going to be rebuilding for decades. A year ago, I asked the office of Mayor Michael Bloomberg what can I do, and we came up with this idea and started building a pool. Now the pool is built and it’s going to be installed in Herald Square, the epicenter of New York City. It’s going to be very cool.

You’ve said before that you regretted not completing the Cuba to Florida swim when you were 28.

From age 30 to age 60, I didn’t swim. I was always fit and did 100-mile bike rides, but I didn’t swim for 30 years. I was just burned out. I can’t pretend every night I was thinking about that Cuba swim – it wasn’t eating at me this whole time. But in the back of my imagination, I thought about making it across those two nations, and suddenly it ate at me after all of those years.

What made you decide to try the swim again?

Turning 60. When I turned 60, my mom had just died at 82 and I thought, “Wow, will I only have 22 years?” We know how fast those years can go by and I wanted to feel committed and have an unwavering dedication to something that would require being the best I could be. And one day I was driving around my car and I thought, “Wait, is it possible? Do I have the will? Can I get a team that would believe in it?” And it all came together and unfortunately, it took three physically and emotionally painful experiences of not making it [not including when Nyad was 28], so it was so sweet and gratifying when I finally did.

Did you ever doubt you would make it?

No. There was never any doubt in my mind. Those four times I failed – I never had a doubt those times, either. You just can’t. When you dive off those rocks in Cuba, you believe with all your life and soul that you’re going to walk up on the shore a couple of days later.

What was it like when you failed?

Crushing. The belief was so strong that there wasn’t any room for imagining I wouldn’t make it. When I got the box jellyfish stings [in 2011] – I wouldn’t wish that sting on my worst enemy. It’s devastating to the body. It takes down your spinal cord, your heart, your lungs, and you’re floundering with desperation. I swam for 24 hours after but it was so debilitating. There were horrible currents. It’s a very difficult area of the world to predict. It’s affected by the Gulf Stream and even winds from Africa.

After I didn’t make it in 2011, my whole team said, “Come on. We know you can do over 100 miles – let’s go to Guam, Thailand or Japan where it will be long but not with this much unpredictable Mother Nature,” but in the end I said, “Nope, Cuba. Cuba’s in my imagination, it’s in my brain, it’s under my skin; I can’t stop thinking about it. I don’t care how many times we try.”

What attracted you to Cuba other than the fact that you didn’t complete the swim at 28?

The same reason why I was attracted to it at 28. It’s a forbidden, mystical, magical body of water. Many Cubans have needed to cross it and many people die trying to cross it. It’s the quintessential story of the world’s ocean, that ocean between Cuba and Florida today.

What was the most difficult moment of your swim?

During the second night, it was Sunday, something around 39, 40 hours, I was hanging on by a thread, mentally. I was really out there in a strange world, not being able to grasp what was and wasn’t real, and after a squall happened I was swimming with the boat and my head trainer Bonnie said to me – I thought she was just trying to encourage me – she pointed to the right at the horizon and asked if I saw the light and I saw a soft white light. And I said “Oh my god, is the sun coming up?” and she said, “Nope, those are the lights of Key West.” There were so many tough moments, both physical and mental, but when she told me that was Key West, that was it. I still had 14 or 15 hours but that didn’t matter. We all knew when we saw those lights that we were getting to Florida.

What was the biggest challenge of your swim?

I vomited quite a bit because of the jellyfish mask. I was taking in too much saltwater with that. The interior of my mouth was dug up with deep abrasions but I never would have done it without a jellyfish mask – that’s how deadly they are. The second night I had hallucinations and it was really gripping with my mind to try to remember what I was and who I was. The days were better, more consistent, but the nights were difficult. Those two 13-hour nights were difficult.

Do you think you’ll ever do another long swim like that?

Nope. I made it from Cuba to Florida and that was my dream. Now, I’m just going to do these swims for relief. I hope to make this Hurricane Sandy event a gigantic success and to do these long swims in the future for maybe the Boston Marathon victims, people in Oklahoma affected by the tornadoes, a few times times a year. I didn’t come back to be a marathon swimmer, I came back to do Cuba, and we did it.

You have said before that you were abused as a child and that helped fuel your swimming.

I went through childhood sexual abuse. It wasn’t the reason I started swimming – I was already a noted sprinter and good swimmer, but there was something about feeling safe in the water and something about the loneliness of it that helped me work through it emotionally. Sport is good in general for a young person to feel strong and proud. I don’t care whether a young kid is going through trauma or not; sport is good for their self-confidence.

But I’m so many years past that. I used to be angry when I was swimming and I was filled with all of that dangerous emotion that goes along with a molested young person. I’m 64 years old now and I’m swimming with awe at the universe and the beauty and mystery of this planet.

Those in and outside of New York can also participate by directly donating funds, or starting their own fundraising efforts, at NyadSwimforRelief.com. The swim will raise funds for AmeriCares, a nonprofit that delivers relief supplies to people around the world and in the U.S., with the support of brands like Duracell, Tide and Secret. 


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