For long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad, reaching age 60 was a revelation of how much more she could get out of life.
Last August, “I decided I would do something at 60 that I couldn’t even do at 30—swim from Cuba to Florida.”
Grueling practices of up to 15 hours in Mexico and St. Maarten tested her body and spirit. Now, nearly a year later, she feels ready to take the plunge.
Nyad will attempt her first marathon in three decades. On July 10, she will embark on a 24-hour race against herself, plowing through the Gulf Stream off the Florida coast and back to the shoreline. A team of trainers, shark divers, navigators and supporters will accompany her on chartered boats.
Later this summer, the Los Angeles resident hopes to fulfill her ultimate dream—swimming from Cuba to Key West. That’s 103 miles and about 60 hours in open water. “Once government approvals are formal,” Nyad says, “when the right pocket of weather presents itself, the Cuba swim will take place.”
Brave enough to swim without a protective shark cage each time, she will rely instead on shark-repelling devices aboard the kayaks sailing near her. They emit “an elliptical field of electricity,” she says.
“Diana Nyad is an anomaly,” says her best friend, Bonnie Stoll, a former professional racquetball player. “I don’t know anyone else in the world at any age who would attempt this. This is about Diana proving to herself that her body and her mind can still do something like this.”
Stoll, 58, will root for Nyad every stroke of the way. “I’ll be sticking a spoonful of peanut butter in her mouth” every couple of hours, Stoll says, while Nyad treads water. “She is not allowed to touch the boat at any time.”
Nyad’s 31-year-old nephew, Timothy Wheeler, also will be onboard and plans to produce a documentary of his aunt’s endeavors. Meanwhile, CNN will broadcast the expeditions live for television viewers.
A natural for swimming
Born in New York City, Nyad moved to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., with her parents, younger brother and sister when she was about 7 years old. “It was a mecca for swimming,” she says. “The [International] Swimming Hall of Fame was built in my hometown.”
She took up the sport at the urging of her fifth-grade geography teacher, who was also the school’s swim coach. “He said any kid who comes out for the swim team gets an A in geography class,” she recalls. “I went out that day.”
Seeing the 10-year-old take to the water so naturally, the coach predicted, “ ‘You’re going to be the best swimmer in the world,’ ” Nyad recalls. With that kind of encouragement, “I just caught fire."
Nyad’s last name alone could foretell her destiny. The word “naiad” in Greek mythology signifies nymphs that protected waters for the gods.
By age 12, Nyad was practicing six hours a day, even on Christmas. Her goal was to make the 1968 Olympic swim team. When that didn’t happen, she embraced long-distance swims in open water, and in 1975, swam around Manhattan in 7 hours and 57 minutes.
Nyad’s marathon swim three years later proved impossible. Harsh winds and waves forced her to stop after almost 42 hours. The following year, her resolve returned and she swam 102.5 miles, from the island of Bimini in the Bahamas to the Florida shore. That 1979 feat would be her last for the next 31 years.
Chasing a lifelong dream
As she approached her 60th birthday last year, Nyad decided to prove that middle age can be the prime of life. The 5-foot-7 powerhouse, who hadn’t taken even a leisurely stroke all these years, was motivated to begin swimming again—and to prepare for this summer’s big adventure.
“She’s her own best trainer. We’re just there to help out,” says Stoll. Five years ago, they launched a virtual business, BravaBody.com, which caters to women age 50 and older, offering healthy menus and fitness tips.
“We wanted to share our belief that a fit body gives one a better chance to face heartbreak, to enjoy this beautiful planet, to feel confident in every aspect of life,” Nyad says.
Their home workout videos feature exercises that “can be done in the space of a beach towel.”
Entrepreneurial and ambitious, Nyad has also authored three books and distinguished herself as a TV sports announcer. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in comparative literature from Lake Forest College near Chicago, she pursued graduate course work at New York University.
Besides the International Swimming Hall of Fame, Nyad has been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame.
But Nyad’s greatest claim to fame lies ahead. When she finally sets foot on the Florida shore after that 100-plus-mile journey from Cuba, Nyad hopes that millions of boomers will be inspired to chase their dreams—or reach for their personal “shores,” be it as a painter, novelist, business owner or adoptive parent.
“Our best days are not behind us,” Nyad insists. “The joke is that 60 is the new 40. To me, it’s not a joke.”
Susan Kreimer, who swims to stay in shape, is a writer in New York City.