January 20, 2016

Women of Doubt: Diana Nyad finds a way

On August 31, 2013, a woman stands on the shore of Havana, Cuba, looking towards Florida. She is 64 years old.

But it's not just her, now. It's her, then too. This is her fifth attempt--her first, in 1978, when she was 29 years old--and the weight of that is behind her. It's a dream unfulfilled, still tantalizing, still beckoning. So she enters the surf at just before 9:00 in the morning.

The woman is, of course, Diana Nyad, who would arrive in Key West on Sunday, September 2, shortly before 2:00 in the afternoon, becoming the first person confirmed to make the swim between Cuba and Florida without the use of a shark cage.

Diana appears, in many ways, a force of nature.

Early Life & Education

On August 22, 1949, Diana Sneed was born in New York City. 1

Her parents went on to divorce in 1952, and her mother Lucy remarried to Aristotle Z. Nyad, who adopted Diana. The family moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida.1

It was in the seventh grade that Diana began to swim seriously. She trained with Olympian and Hall of Fame Coach Jack Nelson. Diana has publicly stated that Nelson molested her when she was just eleven years old.1

In high school, she won three State Championships. She wanted to swim in the 1968 Summer Olympics, but a serious illness derailed her dreams in 1966. After recovering, she was slower, and never made the Olympics.1

After graduating in 1967, she attend Emory University, but was eventually expelled. She jumped from a fourth floor dormitory window wearing a parachute.1

Swimming Achievements

Diana captured the attention of the nation multiple times. In 1974, she set a women's record in the Bay of Naples race. She followed this up in 1975 by swimming 28 miles (45 kilometers) around Manhattan.1

She continued her long distance swimming efforts--in 1978, she made her first attempt at the Cuba-to-Florida swim, but was thwarted by strong winds that pushed her off course. After more than forty hours in the water--and about 76 miles travelled--she was pulled from the water.1

In 1979, she swam 102 miles (164 kilometers) from North Bimini in the Bahamas to Juna Beach in Florida. Unlike her failed Cuba swim the year before, Diana did not use a shark cage for this swim. She was in the water for about 27 and a half hours during the endeavor.1

The Cuba Attempts

The swim from Cuba to Florida was not a new dream for Diana. According to an interview with CNN:

She was 8 years old when she first dreamed about swimming across the Straits of Florida. At the time, Nyad was in Cuba on a trip from her home in Florida in the 1950s, before Fidel Castro led a Communist takeover in Cuba and the country's relations with the United States soured.2

Nyad's next attempt at making the swim began on August 7, 2011, and ended after 29 hours in the water. A combination of strong winds and currents and shoulder pain was topped by an asthma attack that left her severely compromised.1

That didn't stop her from climbing in again, on September 23, 2011, when she would make it 67 miles in 41 hours. But Portuguese man-of-war and jellyfish stings left her with significant respiratory distress. She was over halfway to her goal.1

Her fourth attempt on August 18, 2012, was "abandoned about halfway through after severe jellyfish stings and a lightning storm put her in danger."2 Some sources report that there were nine jelly fish stings.1

Why? Why did Diana, between the ages of 60 and 64, put herself through all of this? She said of her motivation, "Because I'd like to prove to the other 60-year-olds that it is never too late to start your dreams."2

Her fifth attempt was successful. As she walked onto the beach, she was greeted by a medic and ushered to an ambulance. She told reporters she had three messages:

One is we should never, ever give up. Two is you never are too old to chase your dreams. Three is it looks like a solitary sport, but it's a team.2


In 2013, Diana appeared on Oprah's Super Soul Sunday show, and told the host that she's an atheist, but still feels awe.3

Overall, the exchange was pretty awkward to watch, but I like this quote:

 I can stand at the beach’s edge with the most devout Christian, Jew, Buddhist, go on down the line, and weep with the beauty of this universe and be moved by all of humanity — all the billions of people who have lived before us, who have loved and hurt and suffered. To me, my definition of “God” is humanity. And is the love of humanity.3

This is somewhat cobbled together because Oprah interjects, but the thought is whole.

I find this aspect especially interesting given Diana's motivation to reach her dreams, even as she reached an age where many people wanted to say she couldn't do it because she was, let's be honest, too old. People wrote her off, but Diana never did, and I have to wonder if that was in part because of this being the only life she has to live.

If you're interested in watching the whole exchange, check out this Friendly Atheist post.


I am amazed by Diana Nyad. I am in awe of her. I remember seeing this story as it was happening, but it didn't really leave an impression. Digging in for this piece, though, has left me with a sincere admiration of this woman.

I'm adding her memoir to my reading list, personally.

If you're interested in engaging with her ideas and motivations, I highly suggest her TEDtalks, and I'll let you know what I think of her memoir after I read it.


Extreme swimming with the world's most dangerous jellyfish

Never, ever give up


Find a Way


1      "Diana Nyad". <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diana_Nyad> Accessed January 20, 2015

2     Mehta, Hemant. "Oprah Winfrey's Awkward Conversation with Marathon Swimmer Diana Nyad, an 'Atheist Who's in Awe'". <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2013/10/14/oprah-winfreys-awkward-conversation-with-marathon-swimmer-diana-nyad-an-atheist-whos-in-awe/> Accessed January 20, 2015

3     Sloane, Matt, Jason Hanna, and Dana Ford. "'Never, ever give up:' Diana Nyad completes historic Cuba-to Florida swim". <http://www.cnn.com/2013/09/02/world/americas/diana-nyad-cuba-florida-swim/>

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