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A Conversation With Diana Nyad

The famed endurance swimmer on her latest achievement — and what she’s planning next

61-Year-old Diana Nyad trains to swim from Key West, Florida to Cuba. (Jeffery A. Salter/Redux)

Endurance swimmer Diana Nyad, 64. — Jeffery A. Salter/Redux

After several attempts, this past summer Diana Nyad successfully swam from Cuba to Florida.

The famed endurance swimmer talks to AARP about her most recent odyssey, the genius of jellyfish, her mantra and, at 64, what's next.

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Q: You're the world's greatest endurance swimmer. You also qualify for a discount on public transportation. Does that square?

A: I haven't noticed aging yet. I've just never been one who falls into a category. I don't wake up feeling that I'm 64 and not 24. I'm by far at the peak of my life right now, even physically. I don't see the limitation.

Q: After watching you train in Key West, I thought that if it came down to endurance and determination, you'd make it. But then I thought about stuff like the jellyfish out there and I honestly didn't think you would.

A: Those darn jellyfish, they're geniuses. I was all covered up in a Lycra suit and latex surgeon's gloves and duct tape, and if there was a millimeter exposed, those jellyfish found the spot.

Q: And thus the mask?

A: I never would have done the swim without the mask. The jellyfish was one of the variables we had to remove. The mask did the job, it protected my face, but it made me miserable. That first 13 hours at night was hell on earth.

Q: It looks like so much suffering. Is there any joy in this?

A: There were moments. The first day we started from Cuba. The second daylight, I was pretty darn happy. I was being Stephen Hawking and pondering the cosmos. From dawn on that third day on to the beach, that was sheer pleasure. It isn't all suffering — but yes, there is suffering, it's true.

Q: The independent monitor affirmed your swim. Is it hurtful to hear about skeptics?

A: Actually, it isn't. If another swimmer made it, I would respectfully like to see their navigation logs and observers' reports. We showed our data and I believe we proved that I never grabbed onto a boat, never got on a boat and never had any flotation aid.

Q: The questions just come with the territory?

A: Look, there will always be naysayers. There are people who don't believe we ever went to the moon.

Q: What was the low point in these past two years?

A: So many. Lying around on the deck of the boat going back to Key West each time we didn't make it was dismal, dismal stuff.

Next page: What's next for Diana Nyad? »

Q: What did you learn from failure?

A: That the journey is worthwhile.

Q: You adopted a mantra, "Find a way." How did that work?

A: You get a little chill, you're hurting here. Say to yourself: "Find a way." Get through this one minute.

Q: How high are you now, having overcome the obstacles?

A: Actually, the satisfaction that I never gave up is stronger than the joy of making it.

Q: How does it feel to be a cultural icon?

A: Fame is vapid. If people feel inspired, that is deeply gratifying.

Q: You must hear from many people. Who has moved you?

A: One woman told me about her grandmother, Shirley, who gave in to cancer because she felt too old to fight. After hearing me say "never, ever give up," Shirley said good-bye to her whining and decided to fight her way back to health. You'll find a way, Shirley!

Q: What's next?

A: I'm definitely not going to be an ocean swimmer again. But I will continue to be an endurance swimmer. We started with a 48-hour swim in New York and declared loud and clear that we have not forgotten those hit by Superstorm Sandy. We'll team up again for disaster relief where and when it's needed.

Todd Pitock is a freelance writer.

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