NEAL CONAN, host:
There are certain milestones that carry symbolic weight, and 60 is right up there. There is no way around it. When you're 21, 60 means old.
For long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad, 60 means it's time to finish something she started more than three decades ago: the 103-mile swim from Cuba to Florida.
Nyad, of course, broke several long-distance swimming records back in the 1970s, but in 1978, abandoned an attempt to cross the Strait of Florida after more than 40 hours in the water. Now she wants to give that swim another go.
So what is your unfinished challenge? What life goal do you want to revisit? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Diana Nyad, champion long-distance swimmer and long-time sports journalist, who joins us now from member station KCRW in Santa Monica. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.
Ms. DIANA NYAD (Long-Distance Swimmer, Sports Journalist): Neal, it's my pleasure. Love the show, love you.
CONAN: Oh, thanks very much, Diana.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: And take us back to that first attempt to swim from Havana to Florida. What was - what went wrong? Why did you have to stop?
Ms. NYAD: Oh, my gosh. You know the odd thing about it, Neal, is that -just as a quick perspective. Honestly, over these 31 years since that -that was 1978. So I guess that we're talking 32 years now.
Ms. NYAD: I really haven't given it much thought. It's not like - you know, it's been this burning hole in the resume that I just couldn't live without. I couldn't go to my grave without swimming from Cuba to Florida.
All of us who made that 41-hour, 49-minute attempt, and you ask what went wrong - weather. We have much better predictions of weather these days. It looked good the day we left. Very shortly, thereafter, we were on an eight-foot sea - just picture eight-foot waves. I mean, you are no longer gliding along the surface. You're diving and bouncing and grappling with an enormous force of water. And, unfortunately, that wind was coming powerfully out of the east.
The swim, if you look at the map - Havana, Key West - is - it's basically north. It's a couple of degrees north-northeast, but it's basically north. The Gulf Stream is tugging you to the east. So you've got to be a pretty powerful, fast swimmer to get across the wide band of the Gulf Stream.
Now, this wind came out of the east and was - even though I was making northerly progress, I was getting shoved and dragged into the Gulf of Mexico, and we wound up going 79 miles, which was respectable for the time...
Ms. NYAD: ...and, you know, wound up in the center of the Gulf of Mexico. And I remember when my trainer stopped me. She said it's over. We can't make land. We not only can't make Florida. We can't make the Dry Tortugas, the Marquesas Islands. The only land we're heading for is Brownsville, Texas.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. NYAD: And we're still about a thousand miles away, so let's give it up. So I gave it up. And I never had any shame about it. We all did our very best that day.
Ms. NYAD: But now, as you said, I've reached that daunting age of 60, and I wasn't happy about it, frankly. And I thought, you know, I'm going to reach down. I'm going to find my strength, find the vigor I've got in me, prove not only to myself, but to those millions of baby boomers - we were the Vietnam protesters. You know, we don't feel young. I'm going to go out and do something that even myself, or probably no one else on the planet could do even at the age of 29, and do it now.
CONAN: And when you said all of us involved - not just you, the swimmer. There's a whole team involved.
Ms. NYAD: There's a team. There are 30 people. You know, because it's an expedition. It's - you know, it's honestly quite like mountain climbing. You don't ever go to the top of Everest by yourself. And even not the Sherpas - you know, helping you carry oxygen, et cetera - you've got a huge team of, you know, communications people and people getting the Nepalese, you know, government licenses.
And so, here, it's the same. Weve been working on State Department licenses from Cuba and, you know, the Cuban visas on that end. We have shark experts. Some of the most dangerous sharks in the world are swimming in the Florida Straights: the tigers, the lemons, the whitetips. And its taken a long time to put together what I think is a pretty good, if not failsafe, you know, safety procedure for that because I wont swim in a cage.
Ms. NYAD: I just dont think thats being out in the open sea. Ive got navigators, world-class navigators. Ive got my own handlers. Ive got nutrition experts, boat people. I mean, it adds up. And there's an expedition and every theyre all expert, theyre all in there for the adventure, for making history and for friendship. And we are a tight-knit group at this point.
CONAN: You mentioned politics. As I understand it, the Cuban government would be a lot happier if you were swimming to Cuba than having the image, the symbolism of somebody swimming away from Cuba.
Ms. NYAD: Yeah. Well, thats exactly the symbolism that they dont like. You know, Ive been to Cuba not only for that swim, back in 78, but Ive been there many times since and quite good friends with the Cuban sports authorities and the athletes, the marvelous athletes that come out of that tiny, poor country. Its a, you know, its a wonder unto itself.
But, you know, they did say to me back in January, if you would just do the swim into Cuba, we will have a salsa party like youve never seen in your life before. And I said, trust me, Id love to. I would love to land on the Cuban shores, but I dont even know if its possible to go the way Im going. But I know its not possible to swim against the Gulf Stream which does go east, but then it tugs to the north also. Michael Phelps might be able to make it, but I dont think I could. So and you know what, awfully nice to finish in my home country.
CONAN: And I wonder, is the spill in the Gulf of Mexico - is that a factor at all?
Ms. NYAD: Well, like the whole world back in April and May and June, I was watching with horror. You know, youd turn on those images every day and watch that unstoppable gushing. So, you know, it wasnt me and my little swim that was of concern. You know, were looking at planet Earth, you know, going down the tubes. And very concerned for the folks of, you know, Louisiana, Alabama, northern Florida. But I have to say selfishly, yes, I was watching and tracking very carefully.
We have a person on our team - that group of 30 I was talking about before. Theres a woman - and she is a character, Neal, if you ever have a chance to interview her, you got to call her - shes called the queen of the Gulf Stream. She is a Gulf Stream analyst. And for the last 35 years - she lives in Maryland - but she analyses even to the tiny, little eddies and currents within the Gulf Stream, from the Yucatan Peninsula all the way up the Eastern seaboard to the main coast. And at any day, if you want to go out fishing or if youre on a sailboat race, she will tell you, you know, exactly how the current is behaving that day.
And so, I started talking to her. I brought her on the team, you know, right as the spill had happened. And daily, she would give me a plotting course of where the Gulf Loop Current, it comes up the straights of the Yucatan...
Ms. NYAD: ...the Gulf Stream current does. It loops up into the Gulf of Mexico, and then swims back down, and then starts flowing east between Cuba and Florida. And this year, very luckily, that Loop Current has not traveled very far north. So it never was in danger well, I shouldnt say it wasnt ever in danger. But it never did capture any of that massive amount of oil and start bringing it around, you know, which would have devastated the coral reefs and the, you know, the entire Eastern seaboard.
That oil would have traveled all the way up till you pass the Carolinas and up to Maine. But it never did. And now, of course, that the capping is happening, everybody feels quite sure and I I am definitely sure that the oil spill is not going to affect the swim.
CONAN: Ocean swimmer Diana Nyad, who wants to finish off what she has started all those years ago, 32 years ago, to swim from Havana to Key West, 103 miles. We want to know what the unmet challenges are in your life. 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This email from Paul(ph) in Orange Park, Florida. Im 60 and still want to climb Mount Whitney in California, which is the highest elevation in the lower 48 states, i.e., outside Alaska. Ill need some supplemental oxygen because I live at sea level, as well as a support group to take care of me after I summit and return to our base camp at 12,000 feet. But it looks like hes done some studying of this. Good luck, Diana. Paul Romberger(ph) in Orange Park, Florida. Youve had to have gone back into training to get ready for this swim, of course.
Ms. NYAD: Well, you know what, Neal, yes, of course. You know, the training is rigorous. I know that there are many sports on this Earth that take more talent than marathon swimming. But I defy you to find one that takes more will, that takes more willpower, and takes more rigorous physical training. Just the hours are long, torturous, endless, and it just it takes everything in you. It takes you looking into that mirror and finding the soul. Youve got to do it. But, you know something, I love, I love both times youve introduced the conversation today, at the very beginning and just now, you said something like, you know, reaching out to the people like Paul and his quest to climb Mount Whitney.
Ms. NYAD: And I wish him luck. You know, whats your challenge in life? What goals do you want to revisit that maybe you didnt capture? And that thats the whole raison d'etre. Yes, on the one hand, theres a personal, athletic, you know, sort of egotistic victory, there is. Id love to have my names in the record book, the only person ever to swim from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage. But its bigger than that. The drive of it was turning 60. I didnt like it. First age, I didnt care about 55 and 59. And 60, just got an existential angst flowing in me and I thought, Im not irrelevant. Im not past my prime. Im feeling, you know, just brimming with everything that Ive learned in life, and Ive still got a good, strong body.
But what I want to happen, Neal, when I get to that shore, whether I walk up or crawl up, I want those millions of baby boomers my age to look at that. And its not just physical pursuits. If they always had that novel in them but they never got a chance to write it and now the felt like, oh, shoot, I spent all my time raising my kids and, you know, pursuing my career and it's too late. Well, it's not too late. Ninety-five is old. Ninety-five is old, and we allow ourselves at 95 to drift into the sunset and just rock on the front porch. Sixty is not old, and I'm here to prove it.
CONAN: Diana Nyad will change your mind in 35 years. This email from Denise(ph)in Janesville, Wisconsin. At 51, I'm still nursing the novel, short stories and poems I've been developing for years. New sense of urgency? You bet. Diana, you go girl. I will watch and send good thoughts every single stroke. There's a reason you're on NPR today of all days, and I'm certainly not the only woman who needs your example today.
CONAN: Diana Nyad is our guest. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go to Zach(ph), Zach with us on the line from Cincinnati.
ZACH (CALLER): Yes, hello.
ZACH: Yes, you know, a few years ago, a buddy of mine and I flew Costa Rica, and after two days we burned our plane tickets and decided to walk back. And it sort of morphed into a commitment to hitchhike the entire distance of Highway 1. We heard it was the longest unbroken stretch of road in the world. And we - to this day, sadly, only accomplished from Panama up to Chiapas in Mexico.
CONAN: That's a pretty good hike.
ZACH: It was a lot of fun. It would took us about - I think we spent about eight and a half, nine months. And I'll tell you what...
Ms. NYAD: Wow.
ZACH: ...it's the defining experience in my life and that I fell in love with the people of Central America, and it was fantastic all around.
CONAN: You considering maybe revisiting the journey?
ZACH: Absolutely. I am, however, newly married, so I hope my wife isn't listening to this. She's not quite the hitchhiker I am. It may take some time for her to grow into following me on that particular trek.
CONAN: All right, Zach, I'm sure you can talk her into it.
ZACH: Thanks. And good luck, Diana. It's an incredible physical thing you're undertaking. I wish you luck.
Ms. NYAD: Well, Zach, I thank you. And, listen, I wanted to say something back to you. Not only what an experience, but the word you used is crucial. In the middle of your sentence of what you decided to do, you said we decided to make the commitment.
And honestly, what this swim has done for me, I - not that I, you know, ever live life, you know, taking everything for granted everyday, but it's been a long time since I really committed myself to something like this, this last year like you did. You know, to hike, I mean, eight and a half, nine months, you know, every day I'm sure you had rain and blisters and, you know, all kinds of challenges to go through, and to stick with it like that.
But, you know, that's what makes us high. That's what gives us a sense of purpose is commitment. Whether you've decided, I'm going to raise this child, this child's going to come first and I'm going to make this child a good citizen of the world. You know, to me that's the ultimate commitment. But you commit yourself, as the woman who called a minute ago, said to her writing, to her creative writing, and at age 51, she's still going strong. You want to go back and get on that Highway 1 and hike it again.
You know, commitment is what makes us better people. It makes the world a better place. And to me it's just the ecstasy of life is commitment. So congratulations on that hike. And I'd love to know if you do it again.
ZACH: Thank you. And I'll be watching for your attempt.
Ms. NYAD: Thanks. Thanks, Zach.
CONAN: Thanks for the phone call. Appreciate it. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Joe(ph), Joe is with us from Eugene, Oregon.
JOE (CALLER): Hi, Neal.
CONAN: Hi, Joe.
JOE: Hi, yeah. My unfinished business - last August, I was planning on bicycling the entire West Coast from Canada to - down to Mexico. And a week before my trip, I wound up getting diagnosed with cancer so...
CONAN: Oh. I'm sorry. How's that going?
JOE: Oh, fine. My treatments are done. I survived the chemo and all the stuff that comes along with that. And so, now I'm in training. Now, hopefully this next summer in 2011, I'll continue that trip and will finish up.
CONAN: Well, congratulations on your determination and congratulations on your success with the treatment.
JOE: Thank you.
CONAN: All right. Thanks very much for that. Here's an email that we have from Larry(ph) in Wichita that says simply, you go, girl. What's the plans for the trip? Are you packed? You ready to go?
Ms. NYAD: Me, I'm packed, yeah. You know, I'm in that unnerving situation. I don't know - you know, if you follow tennis for instance, the men especially who play, you know, three out of five sets in the big majors. Okay, you're at Wimbledon. Your match is scheduled for 2:00 PM this day, so you've eaten, you've stretched, you've peaked, youre, you know - you got the mental vision of what you need to do and go out there. And then 2:00 comes and goes because the match in front of you is turning into an epic. And it's going, you know, two hours and three hours and four hours and five hours. And now some rains comes. And now darkness comes and you don't play your match at all that day. It goes to the day. So the anticipation and the trying to peak at the right moment kills you.
Well, you take that exponentially and multiply it to someone who wanted me to be in Cuba on July 23rd. So now, it's August 12th. I'm three weeks beyond when I thought I was going to be there. How do I keep the physical peak if I go out and swim 10 hours one day and then they call me the next day and say, hey, the Cuban visas are done, the weather looks great, let's go. I - I'm tired. Ive got to rest from a 10-hour swim. But if I go out and do nothing, I'm going to lose this strength that Ive built up.
So it's just - it's maddening to not know when you're going, when it's going start. And I get a minimum of 50 calls a day from all the people involved in this and from press people. When do you think you'll be going over there? I've got to come up with a good answer. Like, it's mainly - I dont know.
CONAN: Well, good luck and we'll be watching to see how you do.
Ms. NYAD: Thanks, Neal. My pleasure. Thank you.
CONAN: Diana Nyad...
Ms. NYAD: Great to be with you.
CONAN: Diana Nyad, longtime sports journalist and champion long distance swimmer, planning on a swim from Cuba to Miami, with us today from KCRW in Santa Monica.