Diana Nyad showed a natural talent and love for swimming from a young age. Growing up in New York in the 1950s, she spent many hours practicing her strokes in the local pool. By her teen years, Diana’s dedication and training had paid off as she began dominating in national competitions. She won multiple titles throughout the 1960s, cementing her status as one of the top swimmers in the country.
But Diana had bigger dreams than racing in pools. She was fascinated by the challenge of swimming long distances in open waters. While establishing records in seas and lakes, one crossing kept calling to her – crossing the Florida Straits from Cuba to Florida without a wetsuit for protection. Most experts said it couldn’t be done due to the treacherous currents and sea life in the over 100 mile (160 km) journey. But Diana was never one to back down from a challenge. What followed was her lifelong quest to accomplish a feat that many believed was impossible.
This journey has always been about reaching your own other shore no matter what it is, and that dream continues.Diana Nyad
A Champion Swimmer’s Beginnings
By the young age of 15, Diana had dedicated countless hours refining her technique in the pool. She had positioned herself to make her mark as a rising star in the champion ranks. At the national championships that year, Diana stunned the crowd with a blistering time in the 100-yard freestyle. She smashed the existing record, announcing her arrival as a swimming star.
Over the next decade, Diana’s name would become synonymous with victory. Title after title followed as she dominated the national scene, winning gold in both sprint and distance events. No swimmer, not even the best in the men’s field, could out-touch her in the pool.
Early Swimming Career and Records
But for the ambitious Diana, confined pools could not contain her competitive fire. She sought new frontiers to test her endurance against the unpredictable forces of nature. In 1977, she swam around the Island of Manhattan, traversing its 27 miles (43.5 km) of surrounding ocean in under 12 hours – a women’s record.
Later that year, Diana achieved another first, becoming the only swimmer ever to battle the treacherous currents between Florida and the Bahamas, covering 42 miles (67.5 km) in over 21 hours. These feats of open water prowess left audiences in awe of her grit and will to push limits.
There was one challenge however that continued to call to her like no other – swimming the gap between South America and Chile known as the deadly Straits of Magellan. After several attempts defeated by icy waters, in 1979 Diana at last emerged victorious, conquering its 17.5 miles (28 km) in under 12 hours.
She had solidified her place among the greatest marathon swimmers in history. But for Diana Nyad, the Cuba to Florida crossing would become her life’s quest, the Mount Everest she was born to climb.
In the summer of 1978, just one year after President Kennedy had lifted restrictions on travel to Cuba, Diana set her sights on her monumental goal. If successful, she would be the first person to swim from the shores of Havana to Florida without a protective suit.
On August 13th, shortly after 2pm, Diana dove into the warm waters off Ortegosa Beach in Cuba. For protection against sharks, she swam within a large steel cage being towed close to the support boats. Over the next two days, she battled against relentless currents and ocean swells, tirelessly slicing through the Florida Strait.
Despite her determination, nearly 42 hours into the marathon swim, the ocean’s fury had taken its toll. Eight-foot (2.5 meters) waves were violently battering Diana’s body against the cage walls with each crash. The treacherous currents had also pushed her dangerously off course, veering west towards Texas rather than Florida. Seeing the danger she faced, the doctors made the difficult call to remove her from the dangerous waters, just 76 miles (122 km) short of her destination. While disappointed, Diana’s spirit remained undaunted in her quest to complete what no one ever had before. Diana couldn’t enjoy this victory in her late 20s. However, decades later…
An Iron Will
In her early 60s, Diana assembled an experienced support team and gear like a protective suit to shield against jellyfish. She was now equipped with the resources needed for success. Yet she failed again year after year. But she never gave up. She knew she had to conquer her Everest.
But for each of us, isn’t life about determining your own finish line?Diana Nyad
The Long Journey
On August 31, 2013 at age 64, Diana dove into the warm waters of Cuba with her team’s kayaks and boats by her side ready to guide and help her along the journey. It was her 5th attempt, after 4 failures over the course of 35 years…
But on that bright morning, Diana felt different. Doubt was now replaced with the calm of experience. Gone was the shield of steel that had imprisoned her before, instead an array of electronic pulses kept guard from below.
By her side paddled a small flotilla, its crew rotating in shifts to lend support through the exhausting days ahead. Medics stood ready should danger arise from the deep, yet Diana’s focused gaze stayed fixed only on the misty line where sea met sky.
On the second dawn, they saw land in the distance. Yet miles still stood between her and the white sands where this chapter would find its end. After over 50 hours of continuous swimming, the end was finally in sight. But Diana knew the toughest part was still to come. As she gazed at the distant shore, the exhaustion in her body demanded she stop.
About the 50th hour, I was going to start thinking about the edge of the universe. Is there an edge? Is this an envelope we’re living inside of, or no, does it go onto infinity in both time and space? And there’s nothing like swimming for 50 hours in the ocean that gets you thinking about things like this.Diana Nyad
And yet, her spirit remained determined! Diana was so close to achieving her dream, and wasn’t about to give up now after coming this far. With the help of her coach and rock, Bonnie, she pushed on through the fatigue. She was going to finish what she spent so long preparing for.
As the sun stood high on that golden afternoon, Diana’s fingertips met Florida’s shore and a huge crowd witnessed a page of history being written in front of their eyes. Her achievement was theirs to share; one woman’s triumph proving dreams long dreamed can still come true against all odds. After 35 years, her journey was complete.
Watch the film Nyad starring the brilliant Annette Bening and Jodie Foster, directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (directors of Free Solo)
Write that novel. Start that business you’ve always wanted to. The ultimate high of life is the commitment to pursuing something.Diana Nyad