Diana Nyad, marathon woman
The first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage (which she did at age 64) talks about chasing big dreams.
When the alarm goes off on a Sunday because you said you’d get to the gym, and instead you scroll through Kim Kardashian’s Instagram and puppy memes for the next hour, telling yourself, at 32, “I’m getting old,” I want you to stop and think: What would Diana Nyad do? “I’m pressed for time,” Nyad nicely warns before our interview, “but I’m always pressed.” She’s got just 15 minutes to chat on the phone about being the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage (which she did in 2013, at the age of 64), about some ideas from her book Find a Way, about traveling the globe doing TED Talks, and being at the forefront of the #MeToo movement. She’s a committed activist, a lesbian icon, a pioneer in many fields. So when you’re feeling like it’s too late to start that course, or that new career, or run that marathon… ask WWDND?
You’ll be talking at Folsom College soon. What is your intention for that event?
I speak all over the world. I can make a long list of things I have no talent for, but I do stand onstage and weave a series of stories that are compelling, somewhat entertaining and inspiring. People at the end spring to their feet. What’s really happening is they are extrapolating from [my] story. They are taking that into their own lives. When I arrived on that beach in Key West, after 35 years of chasing that epic dream, life or death, out there in that epic ocean, those people were weeping. Those thousands of people on that beach, what they saw was the tower of the human spirit. They are chasing dreams of their own—they’re fighting cancer, they’re looking for work, they’re up against the wall. They want to live the biggest life they can. I never look out in the audience and say, “Hey, you can live a big life too! Here are the secrets to success.” I’m just a storyteller. And that’s what I’m going to be doing at Folsom.
You talked about singing the John Lennon song “Imagine” as you were out there in the ocean. Can you tell us a little bit about some artists or music that inspires you?
I had a goal to sing Janis Joplin, “Me and Bobby McGee,” a thousand times and never lose count. I sing the entire song, from the first note to the last note, and all I’m doing is hearing it in my head, but I’m in it. I’m on number 722. Number 767. It tells me, “keep in the present.” I’m ready to hear my trainer Bonnie’s whistle, the shark team talking to me. And when I sing 1,000 “Me & Bobby McGee”s—it’s a metronome—I am exactly at nine hours and 45 minutes. That’s how long it takes me to sing, 1,000 versions of “Me and Bobby McGee.”
You mentioned that you aren’t a religious person. When you’re out there in the azure of the ocean with Mother Earth, do you feel more connected or engaged to your spirituality?
I don’t think that’s the word I would use. “Spirituality” is a very broad term—I’m not sure what people mean by it. All I know is, Skye, I can stand on a beach at sunrise, with the most devout of religious people. I have friends who are devout—Christians, Jews, Buddhists—and I can weep with awe at this beautiful planet we live on. At this blue jewel of a planet that I got to swim across. I can feel the responsibility of leaving this Earth a better place, with any Christian who does good work for it. But I don’t use those words. I don’t use “God” and I don’t use “spirituality.” Those aren’t my particular terms. But “awe” is a good word that I do feel.
I know some people who have retired or are in their 60s and have sort of given up on themselves. How do you think you were able to complete your feat at age 64, versus 32?
Every expedition, every trip up Mount Everest, every big Mother-Nature expedition comes back with knowledge. With new science, with new technology, with new ways to tap the human spirit. We learned more about the behavior of the gulf stream, and how to try to predict it and get across it. Maybe because we were willing to go five times, and not give it up, we got a little luckier on that fifth time. I do think as an athlete, I was better at 64 than I was in my 20s. I was stronger. I wasn’t faster—that’s for sure—but speed isn’t the point here. I was better as an athlete, and I knew more, and that was the reason I made it this time and not last time.
You’re from New York City. I’m from the Bronx. You moved to Florida as a teen. Do you think your geographic location shaped how your life panned out?
Of course. Here you are around beautiful semi-tropical weather and semi-tropical ocean. So I was a little fish in the water, of course. The truth is, that’s not what I fell in love with. I fell in love with chasing big, difficult dreams that make you discover who you are. If I had grown up in Vienna, I might have been a violin player. I had that drive since early on that I’m just gonna live it large, I’m gonna chase dreams that are big. And that’s what it’s all about, more than swimming or geography.
You are a pioneer in the Me Too movement, and you’ve been talking about it for a long time, since before it became so public. Thank you for doing that work. Can you talk more about it?
I’m at the forefront on that movement. You know, it’s an epidemic in our society. I’m working with Reese Witherspoon on the Time’s Up campaign. We’re not gonna stop the epidemic all the way. It’s part of the human condition, unfortunately, abuse and sexual abuse. But I’m here to stand up and try to bring that epidemic down to its knees in numbers. I’m hopefully gonna put a lot of hope out there.