You might think that, at 65 years old, legendary swimmer Diana Nyad is ready to relax, settle down and enjoy her golden years. Think again.
“I’m a badass and I always will be,” she says. “I’ll go down fighting when I’m withered and old. I’m going to be doing extreme things until the day I die.”
Back in the 1970s, Nyad was the greatest long-distance swimmer in the world. She set world records circling Manhattan Island and crossing the 102.5 miles between the Bahamas and Florida. On September 2, 2013, she became the first swimmer to swim 110 miles from Havana, Cuba to Key West, Florida without the aid of a shark cage. With a team of 25 experts, including shark and jellyfish experts, it was her fifth attempt, 35 years after her first attempt in 1975. It became her crowning glory.
It came with some painful experiences though. Throughout her first four attempts, she suffered painful stings from Portuguese man-of-war and jellyfish, but it was a sting from the Box jellyfish on her third attempt that almost did her in.
“Most people do not enjoy going through a jellyfish sting, but the Box jellyfish – the most poisonous jellyfish in the ocean – is almost always fatal,” she says. “It fires venom into your central nervous system. I felt it through the paralysis of my spinal cord, I felt it in the shortening and duress of my pulmonary system and I went through 24 more hours of swimming. The doctors warned me that I wasn’t going to live until we got to shore and I made it through.”
Nyad explains that whether someone is going up Mount Everest or running across the Kalahari Desert or swimming to Cuba, you come back with scientific, technological and nutrition innovations. “When we came back, we had to figure out how to cover the body,” she explains. “Neoprene wasn’t allowed, but we made a skin – none of it was easy to swim in, but at least I was covered with an armor from those stings. And then a man who makes masks for people who have been injured by war and are awaiting skin grafts, made a beautiful silicone mask for me. I was so proud of our team not giving up.”
After everything she has accomplished, Nyad says that she appreciates being an inspiration to others, but other people are who inspire her. “I’m inspired when people come up to me and say that they had the toughest year of their life, that their mother died and when they watched what me and my team did and that we didn’t give up and refused to go home and quit, even after 35 years of failing,” she says.
To sum up her accomplishments, she quotes Henry David Thoreau: “When you achieve your dreams, it’s not so much what you get, it’s who you become.” “And that’s what I feel, I don’t have this big ego memory of ‘I did it, I conquered the ocean,’” she says. “I have more of a feeling that I am a person who lived a big, probably impossible dream and refused to give up on it. That’s who I am, deep, deep down. So that’s the sort of memory flashback I have.”
She credits her team and her friend, Bonnie, for supporting her to victory. “You can’t be stung by deadly jellyfish and go through those hours of deep, mental strain out there without a source of strength,” she says.
Since her feat, Nyad has also appeared on “Dancing with the Stars,” appeared in Macy Gray’s music video for her song “Bang, Bang,” appeared in her one-woman show “Onward” and she says, she has also been actively involved in dosomething.org.
“It’s for kids who are spending all their waking hours on screens, you know they’re addicted,” she says. “They’re not playing outdoors or using their imagination. It barely matters what you do, just do something. For me, exercise and fitness have been my do something. Even if I can’t save the world and I can’t cure cancer, the least I can do is get up and move and that makes me alive and makes me inspired and makes me the best person I can be in other ways.”
If you’re looking for an easy way to take care of yourself, Nyad says to walk. “Almost everyone can walk out the door after dinner, walk to the end of the block and back, and pretty soon you feel like walking around the block, and then you’re eating a little bit better because you’ve inspired yourself by walking.”
In the summer of 2016, Nyad, who still trains hard and is in amazing shape, will set out to walk across America. She is encouraging one million Americans to walk with her. For more information on how to join, visit diananyad.com.