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The New Icons

The Superhero: Diana Nyad

Long-distance swimmer

Diana Nyad was the first person to ever swim from Havana to Key West, without the aid of a shark cage. (Photo: Annabel Mehran)
Diana Nyad was the first person to ever swim from Havana to Key West, without the aid of a shark cage.

Talking to Diana Nyad, you immediately understand how she swam almost 53 hours nonstop across the Florida Straits. Positivity bursts from her at rapid speed.

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“I’d rather dream large and fail than shoot for mediocre and never discover my limits,” Nyad says. Her definition of large is, of course, exponentially greater than most humans’. In 2013, at the age of 64, Nyad became the first person to swim, without the aid of a shark cage, from Havana to Key West, Florida. It was her fifth attempt in 35 years. 

Nyad’s 111-mile feat places her firmly in the pantheon of ultra-endurance athletes. Between her first attempt, at age 28, and the last four—all after the age of 60—Nyad suffered near fatal box jellyfish stings, the crushing force of a Gulf Stream that blew her dozens of miles off course, hypothermia, third-degree burns from saltwater chafing, vomiting from ocean swells, and the threat of shark attack. Six weeks after her historic landing in Florida, Nyad swam 48 hours straight in an outdoor pool in Manhattan to raise more than $100,000 for victims of Hurricane Sandy

But my awe of the universe and gratitude for the life I live grew stronger than the rage through the years.

“Some people say to me, ‘You must love swimming so much,’ ” says Nyad, who lives in Los Angeles. “Yes. To be out under four billion stars above the Gulf Stream is amazing. But it would be better put that I have a passion for chasing my potential and summoning my courage. Everything I do, I focus and bear down. If I don’t make it to the other side, it’s not because I didn’t try.” 

It almost looks easy. But when Nyad was in her twenties, that tenacity was fueled in part by anger. As a child, she’d been sexually abused. “It runs deep,” Nyad says. “But my awe of the universe and gratitude for the life I live grew stronger than the rage through the years. At 64, when I made Cuba, I was no longer defined by childhood events.”

Nyad had a long career as a journalist, reporting stories for ABC’s Wide World of Sports, NPR’s Morning Edition, and other programs. Now in her seventh decade, she appears more unstoppable than ever. She does 1,000 burpees at a time at least once a week. (It takes her 2 hours and 50 minutes.) She’s in high demand as a public speaker and created a one-woman autobiographical show, called Onward!, that tells the story of her Cuba swim and has her miming freestyle swimming over a platform and playing a bugle. Last fall, with her friend Bonnie Stoll, Nyad rolled out EverWalk Nation, a move­ment to get millions of people walking. In September, they’ll lead a 150-mile journey from Boston to New York City. 

Her next goal? “I want the ocean to come alive on stage,” she says. “It sounds preposterous, but I want to take my show to Broadway.” 

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From Outside Magazine, May 2017
Filed To: Women’sSwimmingEndurance Training
Lead Photo: Annabel Mehran