Endurance swimmer determined to Live, Not Exist
Wearing a white tee shirt bearing the mantra, Live Not Exist, a pair of shorts and Converse tennis shoes without laces, Diana Nyad sat in front of the microphone and a room full of supporters in the Sailfish Club at Oceanside Marina for an emotional recount of her second attempt at swimming across the Florida Straights from Cuba to Key West.
The 61-year old athlete left Havana Sunday.
“The water was like glass, and we felt, ‘This is our time. We got it.’” Diana recounted. “It’s almost like the angels just came down and used their wings to smooth out the waters. When I started it was so calm and flat I said to myself, ‘I’ve got everything going in my favor.’”
But an hour and a half later, the winds whipped up and the Caribbean started to churn. Eleven-knot winds stirred waves that slammed against the swimmer. She was also battling nausea, a torn shoulder tendon and asthma.
“It wasn’t swimming weather at all. You just have to accept that. You’re in the wrong seas. I was in monstrous shape to do this. But, I couldn’t get my arm in the water without wincing. I was in excruciating pain for 30 hours. I thought maybe the waves will smooth out, but that never happened.”
As a general rule they weren’t 5 feet high. But still, a sailor can go out and say, ‘It’s nothing. There’s a two to three-foot chop.’ But a swimmer is at bird’s eye view on the surface, and even a one-foot chop is annoying; it’s just slapping your face. We were being slapped around! I could see the little rubber inflatables my team members were driving around, and I could see when they’d bounce across and I’d look across to see the bumping against each other. It was not perfect swimming conditions. But I don’t think that’s what kept me from doing it.
I think there are very few who can understand what it’s like to be out there unless they are a diver, lobsterman or fisherman. Can you compartmentalize the respect you have for the ocean and what it’s like being in the water that far off the coast?
It’s a mystery. I have a lot respect for athletes of all sorts – especially endurance athletes like the Tour de France riders. I relate to them. I can relate to the will of endurance athletes. People who run across the Gobi dessert and stuff like that. The thing that’s different about this, you’re immersed in a liquid and it is the stuff the Earth is made of. Four-fifths of this earth is ocean water, and there’s a sensory deprivation. In other arenas you can see. You can hear. Here, you’re really with your own thoughts for a long time and the mystery of the universe and the planet really come to play in your mind I think much more than doing other sports.
You talk about the emotional support your team gave you while you were struggling with your asthma and physical issues. Did they give you any idea you had veered off course at any point, or did they keep that from you until you decided to stop?
We were never off course. We were on a very good course, which is one of the heartbreakers of this. The Gulf Stream is lying at an axis right now that’s extremely favorable to this swim. It’s a shame. Even (swimming the) breaststroke, we were making some northerly progress. The Gulf Stream can often just tug due east and I’m trying to go north. Last night, it had a bit of a northerly turn as it has the past couple of weeks so we were never off course. There was nothing like that. A couple people said, “Oh, did you see the dolphin playing over by the boat? Did you see the beautiful sailboat from France that went by?” First of all, I never see things like that – I’m just turning my head 55 times a minute, and I was so absolutely engrossed and sort of inextricably involved with my physical duress, I didn’t notice. Usually there are a few minutes when I come in and tell a joke or two or hear what they’re experiencing; there was none of that. This 30 hours was all about first the shoulder…how are we going to get that under control…what can be done, and the asthma. It was too severe; I couldn’t overcome it.
In hindsight, is there anything you would have done differently in your training?
No. That’s honestly what the killer is about this. We were so perfectly prepared with the right people, the right amount of dedication. I’d like to say the 30 or so hours I spent were actually tougher than had it been beautiful, perfect conditions and I didn’t have shoulder issues and asthma. If the water was calm, I would have felt better and there would have been much less distress on the body and mind to be able to make it all the way across.
At 61 years old, you’ve said you’re in the best condition of your life. What is the challenge? What will you go after next?
When I turned 60 a couple years ago, I decided to do this swim – not just for the swim, not just for the athletic record (though it’s there). It was to remind myself – as you get older life, seems to go by exponentially faster; you really get a shocking view of the finality of it all – I decided I wanted to do this swim, and it has the word epic around it; but, I just want to live life that way. It doesn’t matter if you’re collecting art, or raising a child, doing your business, being the greatest friends your friends have ever known or even loving the sunset. It’s not that I haven’t lived my life that way, but couldn’t say, ‘Every day.’ I decided to do this swim to rise to that commitment. ‘I want to live like this every day.’ I came back to find the best self that I am.
What message would you like to convey to other people your age contemplating a similar mission?
I’m trying to say to you just live your life! Live with passion! Live with commitment! If it’s loving your dogs, give them the best 15 years they could have imagined on this planet. That’s the way I want to live the rest of my life. The swim has done that for me. I’ve just been the type who’s looked back with a lot of regrets. Just always beating myself up going, “Why didn’t I do that right? Why didn’t I?” Look what I lost. It’s a waste of time! I want to be engaged in this moment. I’m not here to give messages to people wanting to do the Ironman Triathlon. They can go somewhere else for that. I want to live with this kind of commitment and have people say, “What a high!”