Swim Through This: Talking with Diana Nyad about her new memoir (Guest Post)

diana-nyad-swims

Bonnie Stoll at her Head Handler post, watching as Diana Nyad swims. Image credit: Dawn L. Blomgren, courtesy of Diana Nyad, all rights reserved.

So, you need something to read that will inspire all your New Year’s resolutions. Something that is motivating but also funny and relevant to women. Real women. You’re a woman with goals, and hell yeah, obstacles galore? Well, look no further.

In her riveting memoir Find a Way, Diana Nyad tells how she swam from Cuba to Key West, Florida, a distance of 111 miles, in 53 hours at the age of 64—becoming the first person to swim that stretch of ocean without a shark cage.

President Obama tweeted his congratulations; Key West is considering erecting a monument (note to Key West: do it!). Naysayers who suggested somehow her swim didn’t have enough independent monitoring: read her book. Just one of her intense training sessions washes away any ground you might have stood on.

For documentary proof, you can watch The Other Shore, a suspenseful, sometimes harrowing film of her historic swim by Nyad’s nephew, Timothy Wheeler. As for her 1978 memoir, Other Shores (now out of print), in a phone interview I was lucky enough to conduct on the second anniversary of her successful Cuba swim, Nyad told me she now “cringes,”about her youthful book, seeing it as a work of hubris.

Just respectfully disagreeing here: if anyone is entitled to writing a memoir in her 20s, it would be this swimming legend, who ended that early book with her circumnavigation of Manhattan, a swim that broke all records (male and female) and made her a celebrity.

Nevertheless, the new Find a Way is the most full, honestly realized account of Nyad’s life so far: it’s a true adventure story and a meditation on the human spirit. Emphasis on the word “human.” With down-to-earth humor, Nyad details the crises she faced without losing the intoxicating enthusiasm she had for her goal.

The narrative interweaves her five attempts to swim the Straits of Florida—beginning with the first, in 1978—with chapters on her past as it seeded the roots of her determination. While she doesn’t identify as a feminist, she is “antiestablishment to the quick,”and her swim effectively blew the ceiling off of any limitations on what we think the human body, regardless of age or gender, can achieve.

As an out lesbian she’s embraced by the LGBTQ community (Camille Beredjick says why that’s important in the Advocate); women of a certain age; and enlightened renegades of all stripes. She joins a long list of incredible women swimmers most landlubbers – and even many swimmers – haven’t heard of, from Gertrude Ederle, who broke men and women’s records swimming the English Channel in 1926, to Enith Brigitha, who would have been the first black swimmer to win Olympic gold – male or female – in 1976 if it hadn’t been for the two East Germans on dope ahead of her. (Her rightful medal has still not been rewarded).

Find a Way begins in medias res with Nyad in her groove, two hours in on her third attempt to cross the Straits of Florida. The weather was cooperating; the swimmer counted strokes by mentally reciting Bob Dylan songs in the four languages in which she’s fluent (yes, she has brains and brawn); her shark divers had electronic shields at the ready. By age 62, it seemed she’d swum through it all, including hellacious currents, Portuguese man-of-wars, and hypothermia, and she writes, “We think, after our two failures, that we know every possible roadblock that can emerge to thwart our journey, yet it is truly a vast, unfathomably powerful wilderness out there.”

She and her Xtreme Dream Team were about to find out just how powerful: Nyad’s blood-curdling screams alerted them she’d been stung by something worse than a Portuguese man-of-war. Despite excruciating pain and compromised breathing, Nyad stayed in. “She’s unreal,” said a 6 foot 3 EMT, who himself got stung and had to get out.

What none of her team knew was that she’d been stung by box jellyfish, small, translucent creatures whose stings can cause cardiovascular collapse and death. Readers get a fascinating—and spooky—inside look at what these creatures are, thanks to the expert Nyad consults. It would have been easy for the book to be yet another sports tale of individual guts and glory, but Nyad writes about her team being essential every stroke of the way.

It would take two more grueling attempts over two more years to succeed. As she told me, “Most people from the navigation, ocean, and marathon swimming world started to call this the Impossible Swim, believing that no one in our life time, in any lifetime—no man, no woman young, middle aged whatever—would ever make this swim.” The ocean crossing – reproduced in wonderful detail from navigator John Bartlett’s chart on the book’s inside flap – is unrivaled for sheer distance and ferocious conditions, due in large part to the power of the Gulf Stream.

So what enabled her to don what she calls a “titanium helmet” of willpower? That’s the profound question at the heart of Find a Way. A Type A overachiever from the get-go, Nyad was by age ten getting up at 4:30 a.m. to exercise. Nyad discovered in her early commitment to swimming an escape from a childhood in which she suffered sexual abuse at the hands of her father and later, a predatory coach who died last year without having been brought to justice.

An in-depth New Yorker piece on Nyad went into some details as well; coach Jack Nelson, who was also accused by another swimmer, was never formally disciplined by USA Swimming (the governing body of swimming in this country), unlike more than a hundred other swim coaches suspended for code violations related to sexual abuse, as this article by Rachel Sturz reveals. Nyad confronts her victimization with frankness and anger, and without dwelling or self-pity.

Instead she raises questions about the nature of suffering and survival. She writes, “My brain was acutely aware that none of it was my fault. But the emotions live at a cellular level.” A marathon ocean swimmer can experience vomiting, hallucinations, and salt water abrasions. How does the mind persevere when the body wants to give up, in swimming or in life? Her ability to take the long—and positive—perspective seems like an apt metaphor for endurance swimming: “I’ve often joked that each long swim is akin to six months on a psychiatrist’s couch. Your life floods your brain, one random image, one pointed voice at a time.”

When her first attempt at swimming Cuba to Florida failed, she quit swimming, figuring she was done with an illustrious career. She became a successful reporter for ABC Sports, NPR, Fox Sports, and the New York Times. When asked what changed at the age of 60, she said “We all know we’re on a one-way street. But I don’t think you start to feel it in a cellular sort of way until you get into your sixties….My mom had just died at 82, and I just started thinking to myself, ‘My gosh, I think I’ve been living the best life I can…but I’m not feeling unplugged. I’m not feeling that I’m just enraptured in a big dream that’s making me feel alert and alive and awake, full throttle every minute of every waking hour.’ So Cuba came back into my consciousness and woke me up again to that full throttle living.” (Her next big goal is EverWalk.)

The humor of extreme predicaments is not lost on her, either: It’s the tragicomic absurdities—like a forgotten, crucial bottle of Tylenol; duct tape on her ankles and feet; and a sleep-deprived Bonnie Stoll, her main handler, hallucinating little bearded men—that make this hero’s journey so satisfying. Unpretentious and bracing, just like a good long swim, her message is that we all have what it takes to achieve our dreams. She writes, “the ethic that arches broader and moves me even more than reaching for the stars is simply: engaging.” Nyad’s wisdom provides heart fuel for athletes, feminists, and everyday dreamers alike.

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Meisha Rosenberg’s work has appeared in newspapers, magazines, literary journals and online publications such as Salon.com, Women’s Review of Books, and Print magazine. She grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts, and has lived in Portland, Oregon, and New York City, where she worked for publishers and earned an MFA in writing from New York University. She lives in the Capital Region of New York with her family.  You can read more of her work at http://www.meredevice.org/meisha/

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One response to “Swim Through This: Talking with Diana Nyad about her new memoir (Guest Post)

  1. I really, really love this:

    “the ethic that arches broader and moves me even more than reaching for the stars is simply: engaging.”

    And it feels relevant and vital to me as an activist.

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