Sixty-Year-Old Woman Will Try To Swim From Cuba To Florida

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Diana Nyad is an International Swimming Hall of Fame member who made a splash in 1979 for swimming the more than 100 miles from the Bahamas to Florida. Next month, at the age of 60, she’s going for her second attempt to swim from the shore of Cuba to the coast of Florida. Nyad talks with host Michel Martin about her planned swim, and how she refuses to let her age keep her out of the water.


Now to the athlete who's been putting in training swims of 10 hours, 15 hours, even a 24-hour swim recently in preparation for her second attempt to swim from Cuba to Florida.

The first attempt for Diana Nyad was in 1978. Through huge waves, strong currents and high winds, almost 42 hours into the journey, her friends convinced her she wasn't going to make it. This according to this clip from NBC.

(Soundbite of news clip)

Unidentified Man: We got problems right now. It's too rough.

Unidentified Woman: On Tuesday morning, after battling 41 hours and 54 minutes of relentless weather conditions and hopelessly off course, Diana was pulled from the water. It took five minutes to convince her the swim was impossible. She kept saying, what will it take? I know I can go on for at least 30 more hours.

MARTIN: A year later in 1979, Diana Nyad did make it through calmer waters from Bimini in the Bahamas to the coast of Florida, 102.5 miles. But she was burned out. And she didn't swim a single competitive stroke until she decided to try again next mo nth to swim to Florida from Cuba. And did I mention she's 60 years old? Diana Nyad is with us now. Welcome, thank you for joining us.

Ms. DIANA NYAD (Competitive Swimmer): Michel, my extreme pleasure to talk to you. I followed your career for many years. You are top notch, and so I'm flattered to be with you.

MARTIN: Well, thank you. And I just learned how to swim myself.

Ms. NYAD: Did you seriously?

MARTIN: Yes, I did. Yes, I did. More than just a little splash. But we're going to talk about you. We don't have to talk about me.

Ms. NYAD: Well, I'm curious how that came about. You just grew up in an area where it wasn't part of the culture or what?

MARTIN: Yeah, pretty much. There was not access to a pool and I wanted my children to swim and as is so often the case, I thought to myself, wait a minute, I'm not going to get them to do something I don't know how to do. And what if something happens to them, I need to be able to deal with it. So there you go.

Ms. NYAD: I am from New York City and lived in New York, you know, most of my adult life. And in New York City, I mean, you're right you're there with the rivers, the oceans. There are just hundreds of thousands of people in that urban culture who have never swam in their lives and it's just amazing to me.

MARTIN: I'm from New York and I grew up, as you mentioned, surrounded by rivers and it never occurred to any of us to get in any of them. So there you go. But anyway, let's talk about you.

Ms. NYAD: Okay.

MARTIN: You've held a bunch of world records, including for that Bahama swim and for circling the island of Manhattan in the shortest time. So, why now this Cuba to Florida swim now?

Ms. NYAD: Well, you know, as you pose it, well, she didn't make it back then, so it still looms out there as this, you know, the one missing piece to a pretty good career. And, yeah, it's true. That's an authentic storyline. But honestly, Michel, what really happened, what's really at the heart of this for me is that a year ago now, I was just about to turn 60, and I was starting to just be, you know, burdened down by this existential angst of what have I done with my life? And I don't mean in terms of accomplishments. Who have I become? You know, what have I really learned? Who have I been, you know, to my communities, to society at large? How much time is there left? My mom had just passed away at the age of 82. And I thought, you know, life is, you blink. Sixty, I'm going to blink and I'll be 82 and gone.

And so I was beginning to think, I don't want to feel 60 and that all my good days are behind me. I don't want, like, millions of people my age to feel disenfranchised and, you know, no longer vital. It's more about feeling strong at 60 and showing it.

MARTIN: Well, can you just describe physically what this entails? I know that you've lost 29 pounds in the 42 hours of your first try. Can you even give voice to just what it feels like, the exhaustion, the pain, the exhilaration, any of that?

Ms. NYAD: Yeah, you know, it's a good question. I keep saying that it's more of an expedition than anything else. It's, like, I have interviewed some of the top sports nutritionists in the world who deal with the top mountain climbers, marathon runners, you know, people whom I respect tremendously. And they'll say to me, this is eccentric. Your body is in an absolute flex. Almost every muscle of the body is working.

You're in salt water immersion in a sea that is lower than your own body temperature so you're leaching heat. You're losing calories constantly, not just because of the exertion, just from being immersed in this liquid. Your stomach doesn't feel well because of the, you know, the salt water exposure and literally taking in gulps of salt water that you can't help every now and then.

So, as I said, I would interview all these, you know, top notch sports nutritionists and they would scratch their heads and say, you know, we're scientists, we've dealt with Lance Armstrong, you know, all these top people, but this, nobody does this. It's an anomaly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NYAD: You know, you probably know more than we do. If peanut butter makes you feel good, if I were you, I'd just stick with peanut butter.

MARTIN: So you're expecting to swim for realistically you're talking 70 hours, 80 hours.

Ms. NYAD: I'm hoping I can do it in about 65 hours. I hope it's not going to be 70, 80, but you know what? Once I step in that shore, this is the last time, Michel. I'm not going to come back to you at 90 and say I'm going to, okay, 30 years have gone by, I'm going to try it again. This is it. And when I walk off that shore, I don't care how long it takes, I am going to get over to Florida.

MARTIN: Is there some significance of the Cuba to Florida swim. You know, why that run? Or is it just because you tried it before?

Ms. NYAD: No. There is. There was significance for me back then and there is significance now. Cuba, just like the English Channel, was a magical place and way back in 1875, the first man who swam it, he knows the history. You know, he's an Englishman who grew up studying the Battle of Hastings. And everybody knows, you know, that stretch of water between the English Isles, the British Isles and the continent of Europe.

Well, here we are in the United States and what famous body of water sitting off the United States could be more significant politically, socially, anecdotally than the island of Cuba? They've been our wonderful neighbors and been isolated from us for all these years. I've been there many times. I adore the Cuban culture, the Cuban people, the Cuban music, the art, the architecture and the athletes and what they've accomplished.

So it's nothing political whatsoever. But I'm just saying, everybody, Floridians, but all around the United States, you know, where is Cuba? It's just our very close neighbor, but we don't know those people and they don't know us because we've been isolated. So it's a famous stretch that body of water between Cuba and Florida. It means something.

MARTIN: What do you think about when you are in the water that long?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NYAD: Well, you know, it's so funny, Michel. After this 24-hour training swim, one of the younger people on the swim said to me, you know, when I came over to get my feeding at one point she said, you know, because it was a dark night, we had a new moon so it was absolutely pitch, pitch black at night, and she said, you know, what are you thinking about out there? You're so alone. I mean you're going through the, you know, the meaning of the universe. And I said, well, you know, the right brain and left brain, as far as I know, are kind of working at the same time. You're in a bit of a dream state and you do go to profound places occasionally and work out, you know, sort of deep philosophical issues.

But right at that moment, I had just been singing "The Beverly Hillbillies" theme song 2,000 times. So I had been going, you know, with the left arm starting first: (singing) Well, come listen to a story about a man named Jed, a poor mountaineer, barely kept his family fed.

And when I get to the end of that, I go, one, and I got to 2,000. So, you know, not deep at all, just something comforting to get me through, to pass the hours. And I think when you talk to most people who have to do very repetitive things and get through the hours, they find those songs like "I've Been Working on the Railroad" and "She's Been Coming Around the Mountain." And "The Beverly Hillbillies" theme song.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay, well, you sound good. And I sure don't want to introduce any note of skepticism. But I just feel like I have to ask, you know, you set such a high goal for yourself. What if you don't make it?

Ms. NYAD: It's an honorable question. It's a long, long, long way and many, many things could happen. And I think that it's not going to be easy. Even this 24-hour swim, Michel, like you said, I sound good. Honestly, I felt strong every single minute of every stroke of that 24 hours. You know, usually you have ups and downs. You have lows. You go through valleys and your people on your boat talk you out of them and you come back around and find your will and you press on. It's kind of a little microcosm of life itself.

You know, you come upon obstacles and you somehow make it through because you know what the end is and you want to get there. But I felt great through that 24 hours, but I can tell you right now, I know sure as heck that if it takes 65 hours, I'm not going to just feel la-di-da and get out and tell you, you know what? That was just a lark. That was a breeze. I felt great every minute of every night and every day. It's not going to happen that way. So I'm encouraged and I'm duly fearful as well.

MARTIN: Well, good luck to you.

Ms. NYAD: Thank you so much. I so appreciate the conversation.

MARTIN: I know everybody's going to be, you know, pulling for you and keeping a good thought.

Ms. NYAD: Thank you. Thank you so much.

MARTIN: Diana Nyad is a member of the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame as a long distance swimmer. As you heard, she's planning to swim from Cuba to Florida next month. She was kind enough to interrupt her training schedule to join us from KCRW in Santa Monica, California.

Diana Nyad, thank you.

Ms. NYAD: Thank you, Michel.

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