Bruce Frankel

Author of the new book "What Should I Do with the Rest of My Life? True Stories of Finding Success, Passion, and New Meaning in the Second Half of Life."

At 60, Diana Nyad Waits For Cuba and Calm Waters For Rematch With The Sea

August 5, 2010

On the verge of turning 61, long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad is awaiting word from the Cuban government on whether she will be permitted to attempt what she failed to do 32 years ago: complete a 103-mile Cuba-to-Florida swim through shark-infested waters.

” title=“Nyad’s Swim from Cuba”>Diana Nyad

Thirty years after the once unbeatable marathon swimmer completed her last competitive stroke, she is taking the plunge again to prove what’s possible—for her and for others—after sixty.

“Look at 60-year-olds today,” she told CNN recently. “They’re not old, and I’m not old. I’m older than I was, yes. I’m slower than I was, but I’m still vital and I’m still powerful, and when I walk up on that shore in Florida, I want millions of those AARP sisters and brothers to look at me and say ‘I’m going to go write that novel I thought it was too late to do. I’m going to go work in Africa on that farm that those people need help at…. It’s not too late, I can still live my dreams.’” 

(Sounds as if she may have been reading about Harry Bernstein, Betty Reid Soskin, Barbara and Ira Smith, Thomas Dwyer, Margie Stoll and the rest of the subjects of What Should I Do With The Rest Of My Life? I’ve just joined her on Twitter, to add my encouragement to her endeavor. We’re roughly the same age, and I have vivid memories of her swimming around Manhattan in 1975 in 7:57,  a record breaking time for men and women. The first woman to swim around the island was Ida Elinosky, in 11 hours, 35 minutes, in 1916. See correction below.)

She explains that after turning 60 she questioned herself about what she had left unfinished in her life, but then pushed away the answers at first. “You’ve got to get real with life’s lessons, one of which is you can’t go back,” she said. Then, one day, she did a double-take as she passed her face in a mirror.  “Wait a second!  There’s one thing you actually can go back for,’ and that’s the dream swim which was Cuba to Florida.”

“Until a year ago, I hadn’t swum a stroke for 31 years. Swimmer’s burnout gripped me to the point that I could have sworn I would never, ever swim a lap again in my life,” she says. “But approaching 60 last year threw me into the existential angst of wondering what I had done with my life. I felt choked by how little time seemed left.” 

Her last and only attempt in 1978 ended unsuccessfully. She entered into a raging sea, trusting word from her navigator that a short distance out the water was flat as a pancake.  After 41 hours and 49 minutes of brutal, non-stop effort, exhausted, battered, scarred by the salt water, and delirious, Diana Nyad was pulled from the sea. She was only 50 miles off Cuba’s coast.

She began at first by swimming just a few laps a day and slowly built the training for the rematch with the sea several months ago at Rose Bowl Aquatic Center. On July 10, she completed a successful 24-hour training swim in Florida.

Now, weather permitting, she will wade into the water in Havana as soon as the Cuban government give its permission, though it is possible that it won’t out of fear of what the image of a woman swimming to Florida might unleash. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton granted permission from the U.S. government two weeks ago. At mounting expense, her team and equipment, including boat captains, kayak paddlers, trainers, and medical personnel, now wait in Florida with her.  “I’m looking for two or three days of doldrums, where the ocean is so flat you can put your breakfast plate down on it,” she says.

Nyad will swim the entire shark-infested route without a shark cage, unlike during her first attempt. Nyad says she will be protected by a newly developed shark shield. She said the four-pound device, dragged along by accompanying boats, emits something that keeps sharks away.

Susie Maroney accomplished the swim on a similar route in 1997, but she did it in a shark cage. Critics have theorized that the cage helped pull Maloney along. She did her crossing in 23 hours 47 minutes. Nyad expects to take about 60 hours.

(Correction: Morty Berger, executive director of NYC Swim, the organizer of the Manhattan Island Marathon for the last 17 years, corrected my first post. As now noted above, the first woman to accomplish the feat of swimming around Manhattan was Ida Elinosky in 1916). In the intervening years, Morty says, more than a half-dozen other women also completed the swim, with Anne Priller (Benoit) dropping the women’s record to 9:01 in 1930. Sam Shields set a men’s record (8:35) that year as well. Nyad’s 1975 time of 7:57 set the mark for both women and men.Since then, more than 600 swimmers have circled the island, and the overall record is still held by a woman. Shelley Taylor-Smith of Australia set the mark of 5:45:25 in 1995.)

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