Marathon swimmer Diana Nyad captured the nation’s imagination in 2013 by finally accomplishing a dream she'd been trying to achieve for 35 years: to free swim across the Florida Straits. Nyad fans and theater lovers alike saw her perseverance rendered onstage last weekend in her one-woman show, Onward! The Diana Nyad Story.
Nyad is used to the spotlight. She was already a world-record distance swimmer when she became a star (and friends with Woody Allen) at age 26, in 1975, for swimming around Manhattan. Making the rounds on talk shows that year, her charisma dazzled. Longtime friend Bonnie Stoll, a former pro racquetball player who became Nyad’s de facto coach, remembers the charming 26-year-old, “walked on to Johnny Carson’s show as if it were her show—no fear whatsoever,” according to an article in The New Yorker. Loud, funny and magnetic, Nyad parlayed her growing celebrity into a 35-year career—appearing on shows, hosting her own, and doing motivational speaking—as she set her sights on a life goal: free swimming from Florida to Cuba. What began as an encore to her Manhattan feat turned into an odyssey.
She rests on a concealed sawhorse to give the illusion that she’s swimming. “I literally swim through intermission,” she said.
Her first attempt, in 1978, was foiled by highly venomous box jellyfish and bad weather. In 2013, after two more attempts in 2011 and 2012, Nyad accomplished her goal at age 64. Now, she is showcasing her life story onstage. Her sold-out one-woman show at The Studios of Key West, which had a capacity of about 160 people, was adapted from her upcoming memoir, to be published by Knopf this year. Josh Ravetch, who helped turn Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking into a hit play, directed it. “I think of myself as an animated story-teller,” Nyad told Outside. “When you go out to dinner, you always have that friend who tells stories. I’m the one who tells the story that people will laugh at or cry at.”
Through visual and audio effects, Nyad takes viewers into her swim, steeping them in darkness, isolation and bouts with killer jellyfish. She rests on a concealed sawhorse to give the illusion that she’s swimming. “I literally swim through intermission," she said. Between intermittent darkness, all you can see is a small red strobe—which was visible enough for her team to locate her during her actual swim and dim enough as not to attract sharks—blinking on her head. “All they hear is the auditory slap of my arms," she said. "And that red strobe. It’s very effective.” She wears the prosthetic jellyfish mask she had on during her swim. "I put on the jellyfish mask again," she said. "It’s part humor, but it’s part science fiction. I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy. If I’m walking outside on a windy day, if a wisp of something crosses my lips—a human hair, or a piece of palm frond—I shudder. Like a post-traumatic stress memory.”
“It’s rough out there and choppy and you see that with the pantyhose on my head. It has an effect on you. You think, that is really a wilderness out there.”
From that primary action, she brings her audience into her own mind and past, shares memories of her Greek father and French mother, and sings Neil Young, Janis Joplin, and the Beatles to keep herself going. She uses a variety of voices with different accents to portray her parents, her navigator, her team, and her childhood swim coach. “In those 90 minutes, I step back to my father reading my name out of the dictionary, naiad, that it means a swimming champion," she said. "My French mom on the beach, telling me in her French accent that Cuba is so close you could swim there.” Bits and pieces of the more than 400 hours of footage taken of the swim, including Stoll pushing her to continue, are projected on a jumbo screen. At the end, the screen shows the faces of her team, with a ukelele playing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."
“This play, like [my memoir], has that narrative, that action narrative," said Nyad. "We literally create the action of me swimming, the jellyfish stings, what the mind goes through with that sensory deprivation. That story, a 64-year-old woman chasing a 35-year-old dream.”
The message, Nyad believes, is that simple. "Here is a woman who wouldn't give up. I think everyone can use that message." But the method of Nyad's show is to simulate the environment she endured for 53 hours in 2013. Her goal was to make the audience feel it. At times, they sang along to the Beverly Hillbillies theme song, as Nyad demonstrated how she deals with the monotony. They learned of the sexual abuse she suffered in childhood. Some people in the audience cried, she added. “Here you have a chance to show what it feels like with sensual effects and video," she said. "It’s rough out there and choppy and you see that with the pantyhose on my head. It has an effect on you. You think, that is really a wilderness out there."
Though Nyad is proud of her sold-out show, she admits that it's only a first attempt at expressing her journey through art. She wants to continue to develop it, and maybe make a more immersive and "palpable" simulation for the audience, which would be around her 360 degrees. One day, she hopes, after “nailing” her show, she'll take it to Broadway.