Interview with Diana Nyad, Open Water Swimmer

From the archive: In 2013, at the age of 64, Diana Nyad became the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without the aid of a shark cage, swimming 103 miles in fifty-three hours from Havana to Key West.

The film, The Other Shore – The Diana Nyad Story, part of this year’s International Ocean Film Tour, follows the legendary long-distance swimmer’s five harrowing attempts at the Havana to Key West crossing and the explores the impact her complicated history has on her chances of achieving her lifetime obsession.  This article was first published on 3rd October 2016 and is a feature piece from Totally Active.

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Totally Active: What was worse? The training or the actual swim?

Diana: The 53-hour swim is nothing compared to the training. If you do a 17-hour swim and you’re lying in the foetus position on the bathroom floor vomiting because you’re not yet in shape, you have to find the resolve to get up the next day and do an 18-hour swim. I was doing these for four years.

But once you’re in shape it’s not all suffering. Sometimes you’re out swimming with a pod of 50 dolphins, sometimes the sea calms down and you have an unreal sense of swimming over the curvature of the earth.

I also got to travel: I would swim from St. Martin to the island of Anguilla. And there was the camaraderie of swimming to the boat and talking to the team about Stephen Hawking and the largesse of the universe. It’s not all dark tragic suffering, it’s elevating.


Totally Active: What do you think about?

Diana: You’re already hallucinating on an 18 hour swim on a rough day. Whenever the mind is caught in a deep sensory deprivation, you can’t see, you can’t hear. It’s not like running or cycling or climbing. I respect those extreme endurance athletes and I don’t know what they go through but the one thing that’s different out in the ocean is that you can’t hear or see. So very quickly, after the first couple of hours, you are in the interior of your mind. And once you start hallucinating, you can’t get a grip on it.

My method was to sing a song in my mind and count the times I sang it with great discipline. The Beatles, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan – I’d sing a song a 1,000 times and wouldn’t stop at the 828th time, because I was tired of it. When I’d sung Janis Joplin’s ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ a thousand times I knew I was exactly at 9 hours and 45 mins.


Totally Active: You don’t seem to be intimidated by the hallucinations and exhaustion. How did you cope?

Diana: This is what the human will is all about. When I’m standing on the shore for the swim, I say to myself, “No matter what comes, no matter if you are afraid, no matter if there are sharks coming towards you, no matter if you are so exhausted that you are vomiting and you are hallucinating, your will underneath has been set and there is nothing, no moment of feeling cold, tired, pain, fear, that will detract you from bringing the left arm up again and the right arm up again.”

In 2011 I was stung by box jellyfish which have the most potent venom on earth. I never would wish that on my worst enemy, I thought my spinal cord was paralysed. I felt like my body had been dipped into hot burning wax.

90% of people stung by box jellyfish die. I didn’t die. Why? Because the will had been set. Before the fifth attempt many of my team told me I wasn’t being realistic about body temperature, exhaustion, etc. I said, “You can do me all the mathematical computation of what happens, but give me the measurement of the power of the human spirit.” None of us know what the human spirit is capable of.

Totally Active: What makes you so confident in your body and your abilities, especially at the age of 64?

Diana: Believe me, you don’t have to be 60 to feel pain when you’re stung by a box jellyfish! Trust me, you swim for 40 hours, you’ll feel it in the shoulders. None of that had anything to do with age.

I was faster when I was younger, but now I’m stronger, heavier and less fragile, much more a long distance athlete than I ever was when I was younger. But I don’t kid myself, I’m 66 years old and when I stand in front of a mirror I have plenty of lines on my face.

I don’t deny my age but I don’t want to listen to other people’s definitions of my age. I think we do too much of that. I’ve been in exemplary shape every day of my life since I’ve been five years old.

In terms of endurance sports, age doesn’t make a big difference. Age also brings a much greater sense of appreciation. I used to be much more self-centered. I didn’t appreciate the blue jewel planet we live on or the friendships on the boat as much, so I would complain and be petty.  But now I’ve lived longer and am closer to the end of my life I have a much more expansive view.


Totally Active: Do you think that everybody has that kind of willpower?

Diana: That’s a fascinating question. This comes around to the constant debate of nature versus nurture. Usually you see the fabric of a child’s nature early on. But on the other hand I do believe that everybody has a will and I think it makes us capable of rising above our physical limitations.

Some people are fearful for different reasons but I do believe that every human being can find a way to summon that will.

Totally Active: What’s next?

Diana: The EverWalk. You can’t really swim together but almost everybody can walk, so I’m going to get millions of Americans walking long distances across the country. Most people won’t do an Ironman, most people haven’t moved in years. Imagine the magic and the power of walking from one city to another, feeling the euphoria, that I felt in the ocean, of actually travelling under your own steam.

The International Ocean Film Tour Volume 3 will be available on BluRay & DVD and for download later this year.

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This article is a feature piece from Totally Active, a completely interactive online magazine written by active people for active people. Totally Active are on a mission to push endurance to its limits, to help readers achieve their potential, whatever the sport or activity. Totally Active have brought some of the world’s foremost endurance, performance, nutrition and fitness experts together in a publication which informs and inspires readers to go to the edge, to break boundaries, and to succeed. Read more articles like this at Totally Active today.