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Diana Nyad at 74: What I Know Now

The endurance swimmer on shame, glory, love, teamwork — and walking 


spinner image diana nyad in light blue suit, side-by-side three times, making different movements
Gregg Segal

Ten years ago, at age 64, Diana Nyad swam 111 miles from Cuba to Florida, in 52 hours, 54 minutes and 18 seconds. She recounts the epic journey in her memoir, Find a Way, and through NYAD, a Netflix film starring Annette Bening and Jodie Foster. AARP spoke to Nyad for the October/November issue of AARP The Magazine.  

 

Hearing the clock

I got a sense early that life would go by alarmingly fast. At 9 years old, I used to imagine being my age now and thinking I had to sleep less so I could do more for myself and for other people.

 

The legacy of abuse

As a teen, I just wanted to be a student and an athlete. But sexual abuse by my coach — starting when I was 14 — threw me into a state of silence and humiliation. I have tried to let go of anger. At 74, I’m pretty sure I’m living the best life I can. But shame can bubble up. You don’t say to someone who’s been through a trauma,  “Are you over it?” No, they’re not and never will be, but you try to deal with it and live a good life.

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Finding love and letting it morph

In high school in the 1960s, I didn’t know gay people, didn’t see them on TV, didn’t have gay friends. I came out when I was 21 and was always open and proud. I have been madly in love three times. I am still close to each of those women. When I die, if the three of them stand around my grave and hold hands and say,  “Nobody knows what it’s like to have a friend like Diana Nyad,” that would rock my world.

 

Marathon swimming

In my 20s, I took up marathon swimming. A friend reminded me I lived on the world’s most famous island. I swam around Manhattan in 1975. Three years later, I attempted to swim from Havana to Key West — and failed. In 1979, I swam 102 miles from the Bahamas to Florida. Then I gave up swimming for 30 years.

 

Spectator sports

I had a great career as a broadcaster and covered the Olympic Games, the U.S. Open Tennis Championships, the NYC Marathon and the Hawaiian Ironman, among other events. On the sidelines cheering for those people and getting their stories, I thought there would be enough art and talent in reporting to keep me engaged. But it started to run thin.

 

Getting back in the water

When I turned 60 in 2009, my mom had recently died. I wondered, Is this how I want to spend my life? I was inspired by the great athletes I followed. I wanted to be a doer again. So I got back in the water and again set my sights on the Cuba-to-Florida swim, which had never been completed. I failed three more times.

 

Team up

I was a better endurance athlete in my 60s than in my 20s and was able to make the swim in 2013 at age 64. When I got to Key West after nearly 53 hours, I said to the assembled crowd, “Never, ever give up. You’re never too old to chase your dreams. And it looks like a solitary sport, but it’s a team.”

 

On being recognized — or not

I competed on Dancing With the Stars in 2014, and in 2015 published a memoir. I get recognized in public. An airline gate agent in New York looked at my boarding pass, then said to her colleague, “DOY-an-NAH NOY-ad. I feel like that name is familiar to me.” The other woman says, “Oh yeah, she rowed across the Pacific Ocean or something.” I’m standing there. The first woman says, “Nah, I think she did something else. I dunno.” I said, “I was the swimmer.” She said, “Oh no. I’ve seen her on TV, and she’s much bigger than you.”

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EverWalk

My friend Bonnie Stoll and I started EverWalk in 2016 to give people a sense of moving with your own steam and taking in this planet. We have people walk with us who have never done any sports. We want to turn America into a nation of walkers.

 

Nothing special

I meet astounding people every day. No one will ever know them, but they’re doing courageous and heartfelt things. I’m nothing special compared to all the people I meet.

 



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