Time. If there’s anyone who knows about the passing of time, it’s Diana Nyad – the only person to swim 180km from Cuba to Florida unassisted and without a shark cage. Measuring time, keeping time, contemplating and making the most of time, “the non-stop tick tock of the clock” as she describes it, has been the soundtrack to her life and work. The goal of that swim burned in her for 36 years, after failing on her first attempt at 28. But thanks to her unwavering determination, herculean strength and the power of the team around her, she did it. She did what no other human had done, at any age, in 53 hours. And here’s the kicker, she did it at the age of 64 after four failed attempts.
So what now? What happens to a champion who fulfills their lifelong dream? From an Off-Broadway show, to a walking movement of 1 million people to a world climate change event, Diana’s life, fuller than ever, shows no sign of slowing down.
“I hate to use that overly-used clichéd phrase 'the bucket list',” says Diana about her upcoming one-woman Off-Broadway show, “The Swimmer” at The Minetta Lane Theatre in New York, "but it has been upfront in my mind as a goal for at least 40 years.”
It may be a surprising dream for an endurance athlete, but to know Diana Nyad is to know she is a born storyteller – and the surprises just keep coming.
Diana’s TedTalk “Never Ever Give Up” has more than five million views, she has penned a biography Find a Way: One Wild and Precious Life, has been a sports journalist for decades and is a regular interviewee of Oprah Winfrey. Her thoughts, views, stories and insights are philosophical, funny, I dare say addictive. And even though the Broadway show is satisfying her personal dreams, Diana is most fulfilled when she is focused on others and living with a greater purpose.
Diana notes that final successful swim was not a one-woman show but an ensemble production. “The power of 'we' is infinitely stronger than the power of 'I',” she declares. On reflecting why she succeeded at aged 64 and not in her athletic prime, she shared, “when I was younger, I was so ego, it was all about me, me, me. I’m so great, no one can do it like I can…”
Then something shifted within her, a deep gratitude for people around her who were integral to each step of the expedition from navigators, to trainers to box jellyfish guards.
Diana explains that the hours and hours she spent swimming in the ocean and looking towards the horizon – reflecting, wondering, in awe of the world – shifted the focus from herself to others.
“I found grace, I found a humility to know that it’s not just me out there… A couple of hours from shore on that final Cuba swim I asked the navigator John Bartlett and Bonnie if they could bring the team together in a semi circle of boats because it turns out and I was right – I would be too tired and too overwhelmed on the shore to make that speech and there would be too big a crowd, and I wouldn’t have the privacy with my team…so I tread water about two hours from the end. And I said to the team, I am going to stumble up on that shore, and somebody is going to take my picture, but don’t you ever forget we did this, we did this together.”
She pauses for a few seconds as she almost relives the moment and then explains, “The power of that was much stronger than my 20-something self who said, I did this, I do everything myself.”
It's that mantra that appears to be driving her national campaign to get America walking together. EverWalk – “the biggest walking initiative in America’s history” (of course it is!) is a movement led by Diana and her coach Bonnie Stoll to address obesity, apathy and loneliness in America.
“It is not for athletic achievement, it’s not to get in the Guinness Book of World Records, it's to get out, to stop talking about Trump and stop staring at the television and stop eating poorly all day long like most Americans do. It’s to be outside under the blue sky, in the great outdoors, whether it is winter or summer… mostly everybody can walk every day.”
In true Diana Nyad fashion, her goals and expectations are epic. She wants a million people to join EverWalk. It’s a far cry from the 7000 already registered. Diana laughs about her “reach for the sky” dreams. “I’m always saying that we are going to get a million people in America to belong to the EverWalk nation and Bonnie is always saying, 'We only have 7000 right now. Why are you saying you want to have a million? Why don’t we shoot for 10,000 then we can shoot 20,000?'."
"Because that doesn’t inspire me!” she says intently, “we could fail horribly and have to shut EverWalk down and then people are going to say what a big mouth you have you said we are going to get a million people walking and you only got 7000, its just me. I’d rather fail shooting for a million than succeed and get 10,000.”
Surely there are few people in this world that have that mindset – most would be thrilled with 10,000 people and see that as a success.
Is this woman superhuman? Diana’s relentless courage and focus in completing that swim included an attempt where she almost died from box jellyfish attacks, only to come back the following attempt in a full body jellyfish suit.
Find a way is her mantra – address the obstacle, and try again.
“The word tenacity is the most important word in our vocabulary,” affirms Diana.
Has she always been like this? Diana takes a moment to collect her thoughts.
“I guess I would say I have always been tough, I think there’s something in me that analyses when a tough moment comes very unconsciously, it's not like I stop and say, if I don’t try, if I don’t really dig down and find my true grit in this moment, I’m going to regret it, I’m going to say why? Why didn’t I try harder, why didn’t I throw myself harder at it?
It's just that I know I am going to be disappointed with myself, the analysis is I want to be tough every time, because I have the courage to fail, I want to rise up to that toughness every time.”
Courage to fail, is what Diana maintains separates people who do extraordinary things from those that don’t.
“We all have the courage to succeed,” she says, "but having the courage to fail, that’s what inspires people.” That’s why her own journey of failure has captured the hearts and minds of so many people.
“Because the nature of the human spirit, is not to accept defeat even if you are going to be defeated over and over again. Even if you never make it to your very final goal, you’ll gather your pride in yourself, you’ll gather a spirit and it will take you on to the next thing and the next thing…we have tears in our eyes when we see the person on the Olympic track who trips and falls, and gets up and finishes last. We all get up out of our seats and give a standing ovation, because we feel that must be humiliating, to have trained for 10 years and not do in the race what you have dreamed you were always going to do, this was your one moment, you're not going to get to do it again, but you get up and you finish that race and the whole world will applaud you.”
As for her own heroes, they’re the everyday people who are contributing positively to their community. She talks with great admiration of her neighbour who despite her own adversity is dedicating her time and energy to helping at-risk youth build an enormous tree house – with reclaimed wood, featuring electricity and plumbing – to occupy and engage the youth but also provide a space and hub to congregate.
“I admire people who don’t just close their doors, get inside and say well I’ve made my nice little life, I don’t care about my family, my community or the world at large, I’m just going to be comfortable, and eat my nice little food, and not engage, those are the people I admire who decide: I’m living it.”
Despite being brimful of humility and an enormous respect for others, there’s no denying that Diana’s life, feats and message are awe inspiring.
We will hear more in time about her third project, an international event to help preserve the oceans which have provided her so much sanctuary and meaning throughout her life. In the meantime she continues to inspire. She has fans all over the world and her message resonates beyond sport and swimming.
Why does her life, her journey and her words break through and impact so many different people? It’s about time and regrets, she reiterates.
“I don’t think people want to get to the end with regrets because there’s nothing you can do with them; you can’t go back. I think that’s what people get from me, when I speak, I don’t think they say to themselves, 'I want to be a champion, I want to do something that no one on earth has ever done before'. Not many people can. But people can make the most of their day. I think underneath, most people feel that they don’t want to waste, as Mary Oliver put it 'this one wild and precious life of theirs'. They don’t want regrets, they don’t want to get to the end and say 'if only?'”
Diana makes the most of her days, has few regrets, has achieved an impossible feat and shared her journey along the way.
She is a perfect embodiment of her own words: "You can never live this day again."
– Barbara Harvey