Diana Nyad: Back to the sea again

It's 130 miles from Havana to Key West. What makes Diana Nyad think she can swim it? Karen Christensen/thelegacyboutique.com

Marathon swimmer Diana Nyad was 29 years old when she tried to complete a world-record 130-mile ocean swim from Cuba to Key West in 1978. For 41 hours and 49 minutes, she was in white-capping waves that reached 9 feet high. She was stung by jellyfish, concerned about sharks and guided by a support boat crew that wasn't able to prevent her from being swept badly off course. Her chief navigator later calculated that Nyad had covered 76 miles, but 26 of them were wasted going in the wrong direction.

Nyad stayed in the salt water so long that her tongue swelled to the point she could barely talk. She lost 29 pounds over the two days she swam. Her body was under such duress that her mind played tricks on her. She thought she saw lizards and barracudas in the water, but there were none. She remarked how the 20-by-40-foot shark cage she was swimming in for protection turned into a cave complete with stalactites and stalagmites.

Only after all that did she realize reaching Florida was impossible. She reluctantly gave up.

Yet now, Nyad is going to try the same Cuba-to-Florida swim again. At the age of 60.

On Wednesday, Nyad flew from her home in Los Angeles to Key West. If the Cuban government and weather cooperate (in that order), she will walk into the ocean from a beach in Havana sometime in the next week and start swimming. If all goes as planned, she won't stop until she can walk onto shore at Key West some 60 or 65 hours later.

"Why?" is the obvious question. And Nyad's many answers and insights into her quixotic quest are far more intriguing than anything else you're likely to learn from sports this year. She's a reminder of the soul -- or the wonder -- of athleticism. Her journey is an antidote to the daily disillusionments or business side of big-time sports today. It provides a look into how obsessively committed athletes such as Nyad are to exploring the margins and stretching the limits of what's possible.

Something -- "Umm … insanity?" Nyad cracks -- compels athletes like her to keep pushing until they're way out on the fringe. But it isn't just what's out there that intrigues them. It's also what they find inside themselves along the way. And if we're lucky, every so often someone as articulate and insightful and joyfully consumed by the quest as Nyad comes along and describes for us what it's like to journey into the frontier and back.

"Part of [the reason for another attempt] is there's this huge welling of pride in knowing you can do something that few people, if anybody, on earth has ever done," Nyad says. "So there is a sort of egotistic victory, sure. … Often, [people] say, 'Oh, what are you thinking about as you swim? Are you into the philosophy of life and is, you know … Nietszche coming up?' In a way. Sure. It's sort like the left brain-right brain get into this thing and you're in a dream state. Sometimes you are working out things in your life [as you go]. I do come up with thoughts like, 'God? No God?' All that stuff, it's there. Deep, deep stuff does come up.

"On the other hand, I will sing 'The Beverly Hillbillies' theme song just to keep me busy for a couple hours, and there's just nothing deep about that."

On July 10, a boat took Nyad 80 miles out to sea off Key West, and she completed a 24-hour nonstop swim -- "a full dress rehearsal," she calls it -- that showed her myriad details she still needed to tweak and plan. And it left her feeling so exhilarated that she looked ahead to the full-length swim and thought, "What can possibly stop me?"

Right about here, you or I might interject, "A lot of things."

But what makes endurance athletes such as Nyad so quirky and fascinating is that they go so far beyond what other athletes compete against: a distance, a ticking stopwatch, the odd world record.

What endurance athletes are often chasing is virtuosity -- old-fashioned notions such as excellence for the sake of it. Self-discovery. Doing something because it's there.

Along the way, the best of them seem to acquire some deep knowledge or acquaintance with themselves that most ordinary, less-driven strivers can't hope to access. The mental and physical pain endured by marathon athletes like her is unfathomable to most of us. Yet they willingly invite it again and again. For Nyad, it can be purifying.

At about this time last year, she needed that kind of test. By any reckoning, she had already crammed a lot into her life. After her career as an athlete, she's had a rousing second act as a journalist, writer, documentarian and commentator for top-rung news organizations, such as NPR, CNN, "CBS Sunday Morning," the New York Times and ABC's "Wide World of Sports." She graduated college Phi Beta Kappa and she's fluent in German, Spanish and French. She's written three books, created businesses, given motivational speeches. She once hosted a TV adventure show that took her swimming with 100-ton whales in Patagonia, kayaking over 40-foot waterfalls in Borneo, and bicycling across Viet Nam. She has always been a woman who radiated intensity but could joke about herself.

Yet last summer, Nyad says, she felt a sort of "existential angst." Her mother had died recently at age 82. A deep restlessness set in that Nyad just couldn't shake.

Her own 60th birthday was fast approaching, and "it was starting to piss me off," as Nyad told a colleague last month at KCRW, the Los Angeles-based NPR station where she's now a commentator. "I've never had a problem with age -- just, you know, live life large and move onto the next stage. But now at 60, I was beginning to feel like I think millions of people my age do. I still feel young. I feel strong. I feel vibrant. I feel relevant to my community. But society makes us feel 'less than.'

"My mother just passed away and I thought, 'Soon I'm going to blink and be my mother's age,' and I was thinking, 'What have I done with my life?' I don't mean just in accomplishments, but who have I become?"

Revisiting her Cuba-to-Florida swim suited Nyad's need to take some new measure of herself, physically and mentally.

She insists she isn't undertaking this swim because the failed 1978 attempt haunts her, and longtime friends confirm that. For one thing, Nyad completed a world-record 102.5-mile ocean swim from Bimini to Florida the very next year that landed her on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson, the "CBS Evening News" with Walter Cronkite, and front pages of newspapers. Before that, she'd made headlines for feats such as breaking a 50-year-old record for swimming around Manhattan. She'd been applauded and feted and installed in plenty of halls of fame.

But after that Bimini-to-Florida triumph in 1979, she says she didn't swim a single lap in a pool again for the next 30 years.

Nyad says she felt "burned out" on swimming. She moved on.

When she finally got back into the pool last summer, it was initially only to stay fit while saving a little wear and tear on her knees. But the pleasure she felt again just gliding through the water appealed to her.

Soon, her powerful stroke came back.

Then that "existential angst" came on. Nyad being Nyad, she had a long talk with herself, demanding to know what the hell Nyad was going to do about it.

She started to think how people get to her age and talk with regret about never getting off the career carousel to, say, write the novel or become a master woodworker like they always said they would. What she's exploring now is how a person can be 60 and feel more alive or competent than ever. She adamantly rejects the notion "that 60 is a time to coast in life." She says, "No, no. I refuse to become irrelevant."

That said, Nyad laughs and adds, "If I do succeed in this, if I walk up on that beach or crawl up on that Florida shore, people aren't going to say, 'Hey! I want to do that too!' Of course, they're not. No one else is going to do this. It's insane. And it's probably nearly impossible.

"But I do want people to look at it and say, 'You know what? I thought my best days were behind me [at 60]. … But I'm still young."

Friends and family tried to talk Nyad out of this latest swim, often by voicing all that could go wrong. But as she also said on KCRW, an NPR station in Southern California, "They know I'm unstoppable. And so my friends give in and say, 'All right. Well, as long as you're going to do it, I'll be there every step of the way. Every stroke.' They're all in there for the adventure, for making history and for friendship. And we are a tight-knit group at this point."

Nyad trained for the past year by making eight-, then 10-, then 12-hour open ocean swims. She marshaled a support team of 24 people for this attempt, the logistics of which she compares to putting together a Mount Everest expedition. She drummed up more than $300,000 in fund-raising from sponsors and private donors. Some networking persuaded Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to help her get the necessary permissions from the U.S. government to take her crew to Cuba and back.

Nyad says Cuban officials initially told her they were enthusiastic about her planned swim. They have since expressed a preference that she finish in Havana -- which she interprets as possible skittishness about the unintended symbolism of approximating a route so many Cuban defectors have taken since Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution. She has told the Cubans the gulf currents make reversing the trip impossible. For now, she and her team are still waiting for visas.

Nyad's support group includes boat captains and crews, plus a navigator, a meteorologist, a medical doctor and a nutritionist, an expert on Gulf Stream currents and a team of six handlers -- close friends all -- whom she compares to corner men in boxing. They'll take turns watching her around the clock as she swims. They'll hand her food and fluids over the side of the boat, manage logistics, buck her up when she needs emotional support and monitor how lucid she is.

When -- not if -- she gets stung by jellyfish or Portuguese Man o' Wars again, her doctor is planning to use an extension rod with a sponge dipped in Lidocaine to treat the pain.

This time, she will not swim inside a shark cage like she did in '78. She has practiced with competitive kayakers who will travel alongside her with electronic shark shield devices strapped to their watercraft. The four-pound units emit sonar waves that are supposed to keep sharks outside a four-meter radius from Nyad.

If that doesn't work, safety divers will be on the support boat, ready to dive in with stun guns.

Nyad has purposely put on an extra 10 pounds to compensate for the weight she expects to lose as she swims. She has a specially designed swimsuit with silicon threading because the regular suits she tried sometimes left bloody gashes in her shoulders after so many strokes. Her 24-hour trial swim revealed that her food intake -- about 700 calories an hour -- seemed right, but her fluid intake was far too little. She started vomiting after she was helped into the boat and needed four IVs. She and her doctor concluded, "I would have been in trouble if I had gone on much longer. So we're solving that."

On Monday night, two days before she flew to Key West, Nyad admitted the wait for Cuban authorities to give her a final go-ahead was driving her "crazy." She had originally hoped to start the swim two or three weeks ago when lighter winds and calmer waters in the Gulf Stream were more prevalent.

Once she is underway, making it to Key West might not outrank -- rather, add to -- the year-long journey she's already lived. As she puts it, "There are many sports on this earth that take more talent than marathon swimming. But I defy you to find one that takes more will, that takes more willpower, and more rigorous physical training. … It just takes everything in you.

"Here, you're literally immersed in the elements. You're almost naked in a sea. It's just you and the tide. It's the currents. It's the temperature of the water. And it really is like being in a boxing match. You can't get away from what comes at you. Your shoulders, your hands, your arms have to just keep coming over, one after the other after the other. A sort of automatic will sets in."

And then?

"Going on takes looking into that mirror of yourself," Nyad says, "and finding the soul."

That's the "why."

Even at 60, that's why Diana Nyad swims.

Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com, and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at jphinbox@yahoo.com.