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Marathon swimmer Diana Nyad: ‘I didn’t have much regard for other people’s standards of limitation’

Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Diana Nyad

It took four failed attempts before long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad finally became the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without the aid of a shark cage. She completed that journey, 110 miles in total in some of the most challenging waters on the planet, at the age of 64. Her first attempt was at age 28.

“It was always about Cuba—it is the Mount Everest of the earth’s oceans,” Nyad told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh. “There is no passageway more replete with obstacles—whether it be the animals, or the currents, or the human bodies—what it’s up against in this particular swim between Havana and the state of Florida.”

Nyad recently released a book entitled “Find A Way,” in which she relates her remarkable journey and life story in her own words.

Nyad’s drive was founded in her childhood

While Nyad’s accomplishments as a swimmer and sports broadcaster (she took a 30 year hiatus from competitive swimming mid-career) are vast, she said that even before she got into competitive sports she had a particular drive to achieve “impossible” things.

“If my mother were still alive she’d probably say ‘This kid of mine, this particular one, you could see it, you could see it at six months or a year old,’” Nyad said. “There was a will. Frankly, I rail against people because I know it is a facile, seductive thing to do to connect whatever hard issues I went through as a kid to me becoming this driven person. The truth is, I was this person before all that bull happened. I didn’t need all that stuff to make me a better, driven person.”

"I'm one that questions. I don't want to be right or wrong, I just want to set my own parameters, that's all."

Nyad grew up in what she referred to as a “traditional” home with a Greek Orthodox father who set traditional male-dominant rules. When her father tried to make her cook in the kitchen with her mother, she recalls coming out to the living room with a bowl of salad and dumping it on his lap

“I didn’t have much regard for other people’s standards of limitation,” she continued, mentioning she always questioned laws, academic principles and standards girls were held to in sports. “I’m one that questions. I don’t want to be right or wrong, I just want to set my own parameters, that’s all.”

Nyad’s father molested her as a child, as did her swimming coach. Nyad was quick to point out that one out of every four girls and one out of every six boys is molested before the age of 18.

“I’m not in a rarified group, by any means,” Nyad said. “I can only live my life. I wasn’t in the Holocaust, I didn’t just walk from Syria with two kids all the way over to Germany. I can only live the life I lived and, yeah, there was some terror to being sexually molested as a kid. I don’t poo poo that and I can’t become another person who didn’t go through that. On the other hand, I think that even as a child I was aware there were other people starving, that didn’t have water to drink, and I just thought ‘I’ll make it through this, I’ll make it through this.’ My life isn’t over because of this.”

Nyad continued with swimming despite the molestation—but that’s not because she so loved swimming for swimming’s sake.

“The truth is, I’m not a swimmer,” Nyad said. “I didn’t go into this extreme world of swimming for that sport. I am a person who lives a large, epic sort of life. I’ve always been like that as a kid. Swimming is just the sideline vocabulary…the water happened to be the milieu where I acted out this epic personality. The truth is that living an impassioned life, swimming or not, is who I am.”

A 30-year swimming hiatus

Credit Alfred A. Knopf
Diana Nyad's autobiography.

Nyad had set records for her swim around Manhattan Island as well as a landmark swim from North Bimini in the Bahamas to Juno Beach, Florida before retiring at age 30 to focus on a sports broadcasting career. She worked for the likes of NPR’s “All Things Considered” and ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” as a sports commentator for thirty years before realizing something was amiss in her life.

“All of that was great experience,” Nyad said. “I did feel always… I felt during that 30 year hiatus that I wasn’t a doer. I was just talking, talking, talking. I wasn’t rolling up my shirtsleeves and tapping my potential.”

At age 50, “the reckoning started coming,” she said.

“I thought ‘Am I happy? Am I a person I could admire?’” Nyad continued. “Win or lose, fail or succeed, I wanted to get back and chase that dream, not even to set the record, just to live that large again.”

The looming Cuban challenge

Other marathon swimmers have chosen the likes of the English Channel for its historic significance in order to break records, but Nyad, a Florida native, said that the geography of Cuba always called to her.

“I don’t think if we spread out the maps of the world right now that we could find a more storied body of water on earth at the moment than that area,” she said.

The 3-day long swim is near-impossible. With waters populated by sharks and one of the most venomous creatures in the world, the Box jellyfish, Nyad said that the journey was considered impossible.

"I don't think if we spread out the maps of the world right now that we could find a more storied body of water on earth at the moment than that area."

“People had been trying since 1950,” Nyad said. “Everything in there would make a sports bookie in Vegas put it at a 1% chance.”

On her first attempt, in September 2011, Nyad said she could have died from the amount of jellyfish venom paralyzing her system. With her team of 44 people, she re-doubled efforts to innovate in the field of marathon swimming and come up with a solution for jellyfish stings—which she did in the form of an experimental prosthetic bodysuit. She also found refuge and motivation in a playlist of 85 songs she sang in her head to keep her going—including tunes from Neil Young.

Her journey was an expensive one, adding up to over $1 million dollars. Corporate sponsorships and donations helped raise the money to support her team’s work, which included experts in navigation, personal nutrition and motivation, and a team specially dedicated to fighting off sharks in the pitch-black ocean with non-lethal weaponry.

Inspiring the world

Nyad said she realizes that the money she raised to go to her dream could have gone to other causes—but believes that the world needs people who inspire too.

"They were weeping. They weren't weeping because some athletic goal had been met, they were weeping because they watched someone who wouldn't give up."

“People need to be inspired as well,” Nyad said. “It was my own private dream and I chased it from something deep in my heart. It turns out it meant a lot. There were thousands of people on the beach that day when we finished. They were weeping. They weren’t weeping because some athletic goal had been met…they were weeping because they watched someone who wouldn’t give up. Someone who got slapped down, who almost died…but she and her team came back. And found resources and looked to innovation and they just wouldn’t give up. People need this for their lives.”

"St. Louis on the Air" discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter and join the conversation at @STLonAir.

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.

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