A couple of years ago, swimming legend Diana Nyad was emceeing a swank awards banquet in the Waldorf Astoria ballroom in New York when she suddenly woke up the crowd by stripping off her dress. Standing on stage in nothing but a swimsuit and high heels, dangling her cleavage, she further enlivened the affair by whipping out a bugle and playing reveille.
She was nearing 60 then. Now she’s 61, and just the other day she made a Hamptons cocktail party come alive by popping a biceps muscle, to prove she’s still capable of swimming from Cuba to Florida. She rolled up her sleeve and flexed a muscle the size of a small cannonball. Conversation stopped, replaced by sharp intakes of breath, followed by upset glasses of wine and fumbled cheese wedges.
Some time in June or July, when the weather permits, Nyad will attempt a 103-mile swim from Cuba to Key West through the shark-infested waters of the Florida Straits. This will be no mere party stunt to show off her physique — think of Helen Mirren with brawn. Nyad intends to challenge the limits of the mind and calendar by finishing a job she started 32 years ago, when she was the greatest endurance swimmer in the world.
“I have no idea what age I am,” she says. “I don’t feel different in any way. People say, ‘Maybe you should take more recovery time between swims because of your age.’ I’m like, Oh. My age. I forgot.”
It’s an undertaking of untold hazards that is projected to require 60 hours of continuous swimming. In addition to sharks there will be risks from man o’ war jellyfish as well as hypothermia, dehydration and cardio-arrhythmia. But the real danger is the unknown.
Nyad completed a 24-hour marathon swim in training last summer, but all she really has for data about the effects of such an attempt are her memories of her last one, when she was 29 years old.
“She is off the map,” says her physician, Michael Broder. “There are people who do endurance for this long, but not in the water and not isolated like this. She’s out there. You can’t provide her with things that you could provide a land athlete with.”
Back in the 1970s, a rash of daredevil adventurers awed the public with feats of dangerous cartography, mapping the limits of personal fear and pain. In August 1974, Philippe Petit walked a wire between the World Trade Center towers. A month later, the motorcycle jumper Evel Knievel attempted to fly across the Snake River Canyon. In ’75, it was Nyad who won fame with a treacherous record-setting swim around the island of Manhattan in 7 hours 57 minutes. Four years later she set a world record for distance when she completed a 102-mile journey over open water from Bimini in the Bahamas to Florida.
But Nyad never completed her most ambitious swim: In August 1978, her attempt to cross from Cuba to Florida was stopped by ill winds and eight-foot swells. A boatload of press chronicled her desperate lashings for 49 hours and 41 minutes before she was hauled shivering and protesting from the water.
“Can’t I keep going?” she mumbled, according to Sports Illustrated, which published the most detailed and authoritative account of her effort. Her tongue was so badly swollen by seawater her words were barely decipherable. To continue was impossible — the conditions had pushed her so far off course that she was headed for Brownsville, Tex.
After 1979, Nyad didn’t swim seriously again for 31 years. She was exhausted, and more interested in pursuing a career as a TV and radio journalist. But it all started again with the approach of her 60th birthday, when she lapsed into a state of unhappy existential query. She felt choked by the onset of old age, useless and closed off from possibility. Life, she felt, “was screaming by like a hurricane.” She wrote on a blog, “I blink and it’s April. I blink and I’m 61.”
One day while driving in Los Angeles, she looked into the rearview mirror and asked herself what she regretted most. Answer: the Cuba swim.
Sunday, Aug. 13, 1978, 2 p.m.:
She stood on Ortegosa Beach, 50 miles west of Havana. A northeast wind blew chop across the water, but the forecast said it would die. “I guess I’ll see you all in about two days,” she said, and then she waded in.
She enclosed herself in a 20-by-40 -foot shark cage mounted on pontoons and began her rhythmic pull through the sea. But over the next few hours the wind didn’t die; it built. So did the swells. Three-foot waves slapped her in the face and banged her around in the cage. She swallowed saltwater. The drifting arm of a jellyfish stung her and she shrieked.
Two summers ago, Nyad began to swim laps again, just to tone up. But she quickly developed a renewed appetite for extreme training. She was staying with friends on Long Island one weekend when she asked her hosts, “Do you want to go for a bike ride?”
“Maybe. Where do you want to go?”
“How about Montauk.”
“Diana — you know that’s almost 100 miles round trip, right?”
She did the ride in sweltering heat, up and down hills with no shade, and came back six-and-a-half hours later dripping with sweat but completely invigorated. Her hosts were sitting on the deck. “Hey, do you mind if jump in your pool?” she said. They said: “Of course not.” She dropped all of her clothes on the patio and jumped into the water.
Monday, Aug. 14, 1978, 2 a.m.:
At the 12-hour mark when her trainers fed her chicken soup, she vomited. Every hour she either threw up, or cried. At 4 a.m., the support crew tried to soothe her by blaring a Simon and Garfunkel tape. She raised her head from the water and said: “‘Joe DiMaggio, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you.’ That means there are no more heroes, right?”
By last July, she felt strong enough to complete a 24-hour training swim off the coast of Florida, and though she needed four intravenous drips to replenish her strength when it was over, she was convinced she could make the Cuba trip.
“The thing that amazed me was, the speed of her stroke barely budged from hour one to hour 24,” Broder said. But she had to scuttle her plans when she couldn’t get through the red tape and procure a visa in time to take advantage of the best weather conditions.
In a way, she says, it was the best thing that could have happened, because it gave her another year to lay down an endurance base for the torture that she knows is coming. Since then, she has packed on another 15 pounds of muscle and insulating weight.
Monday, Aug. 14, 1978, 8 p.m.:
After she had been swimming for an entire day, she began hallucinating. She had a panicky delusion that a barracuda swam in the cage. Her crew assured her there were no barracudas in the straits. By 8 o’clock of her second night in the water, the wind was at 18 knots and she bounced and dove over ocean swells seven feet tall. Now there were lizards in the cage. Eventually, she imagined she was in a deep cave, and all she could see were stalagmites.
Over the past year, she has trained by swimming from point to point and island to island in the Caribbean. On one occasion, she swam from her base in St. Maarten all the way to Anguilla — a ferry ride for tourists. While she swims, her thoughts range from deeply esoteric to silly. Once, she sang the theme from the “Beverly Hillbillies” to herself 2,000 straight times.
“As an endurance athlete there isn’t a moment where you say: ‘Oh God, this feels great. I wish this would never stop,’ ” she says. “You’re not in that space. Now that doesn’t mean I don’t feel some huge pride when I pick a destination to swim to that’s a trip in a boat or a plane.”
If Nyad has lost anything to age, she figures she can make up for it with science. This time when she launches her Cuban expedition she will have a support flotilla of 25 experts, including navigators and weather-routers to help her avoid the miserable conditions she faced last time. She has hired renowned Annapolis-based satellite oceanographer Jenifer Clark and her husband Dane, a meteorologist, the acknowledged experts on Gulf Stream conditions. They will use infrared, satellite altimetry and surface isotherm data, and other oceanographic analysis to find her a calm three-day period, with the warmest water temperatures to ward off hypothermia, as well as favorable wind patterns and currents.
“Thirty years ago it was like the dark ages,” Jenifer Clark says. “Now we have so much information we can make a masterpiece out of nothing.”
Even so, according to Dane Clark, the projections are just that and the forecast could be wrong. Nyad’s logistics complicate matters — she needs enough notice to get her team to Cuba and in place, which could cost her precious calm. Nevertheless, they are confident they can give her a decent window to make a successful swim. Normally they provide advice for large vessels, but they have become charmed by Nyad, for whom they are working for a nominal fee.
“She’s about my age,” says Jenifer, 65. “It’s vicarious.”
Perhaps the most intriguing scientific advance Nyad has working on her behalf is something called a “shark screen,” which will liberate her from the cumbersome cage. Two kayakers with devices that generate electric waves will paddle alongside her to ward off the tiger sharks, bull sharks and white-tips that patrol the straits. The waves create a buffer that the sharks will not cross.
Three decades ago the remedy for a jellyfish sting was an ammonia rub, and for energy she drank Perrier laced with dextrose. Now she will have powerades, gels and powders, and the medical attentions of Broder, a friend who enjoys marathons when he is not serving as an obstetrician and a clinical professor at the UCLA School of Medicine. Broder has steeped himself in endurance training theory and carefully tracks Nyad’s physical state, weighing her, and measuring her fluid loss.
“The science has moved on quite a bit,” Broder says. “But the one thing that’s the same is, 98 percent of it will be Diana and her determination. That’s the same as it was 30 years ago. I know she can do it if the conditions are right.”
Still, the expedition is so daunting that Nyad has had trouble convincing enough sponsors to help back it. Her friend and sponsor Stephanie Tolleson, a former tennis pro and sports agent, says: “I believe you. But I don’t understand how. How is it possible to keep stroking for that long and under that duress?”
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?”