Nyad knows it’s possible, because she would have done it if not for that northeast wind in 1978. She has made believers out of sponsors like Secret deodorant and the La Samanna Hotel in St. Maarten where she trains. CNN is tracking her for a documentary. Still, she is $350,000 shy of where she would like to be. She is ransacking her own bank accounts to pay her expenses, and many of her support crew are working gratis for the sake of helping a world record.
“I would have the hubris to say I don’t think there’s another swimmer on the planet who could do this swim,” she says. “I just don’t think someone else could stand on the Cuban shore and get over to Florida. It’s outrageously extreme.”
Tuesday, Aug. 15, 1978, 7 a.m.:
She had been swimming since Sunday, and the eight-foot swells had pushed her to the west so inexorably that her crew wondered if she should try for Mexico instead. Finally they concluded she couldn’t make land.
“Everything went wrong,” head trainer Margie Carroll said to her, weeping. “You swam for 42 hours, but the wind pushed us too far west, and I’m so sorry, Diana. But I’m telling you now that you’re not going to make it.”
When they pulled her out of the water she had swum for more than 76 miles. But she had seldom gone in a straight line. The forecasts and the currents and the technology had failed her. “She’s the only thing in the project that worked,” someone said.
As June approaches, Nyad will relocate to Key West and await weather reports from the Clarks like a mountain climber at a base camp hoping to summit Everest. There will be no more 24-hour training swims — if she’s going to be in the sea for that long, she might as well be there with a purpose. And once she starts, she doesn’t intend to tread water. “Why would I rest?” she says. “If I rest, it means I’m not going anywhere, and I’ll have to swim longer.”
When Nyad says things like this, listeners tend to stare at her, baffled. It’s hard to grasp Nyad’s attraction to sensory deprivation and absolute physical desolation. What’s the payoff? The answer won’t be found on a soft sofa watching ESPN. Better to search the account of another mapper of cold, bleak, unexplored watery pinnacles, Ernest Shackleton, who sailed his boat Endurance to Antarctica.
“We had pierced the veneer of outside things,” he wrote.
With desolation comes simplicity, and clarity: When Nyad swims, she no longer feels old. She feels eternal. “There’s something gripping about the journey,” she says. “Who’s going to be strong enough to make it?”