Marathon swimming is the loneliest sport in the world.
Born in New York City on this date in 1949, Diana Sneed was the great-granddaughter of Charlotte Winslow, the inventor of Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, a teething medicine for children. Her father, William Sneed, was a stockbroker who married and had three children with Lucy Winslow Curtis. After her parents divorced in 1952, Lucy married Aristotle Nyad, a real estate developer who adopted the children and moved the family to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Diana started swimming in fifth grade. Fifteen minutes into her first practice, the coach leaned toward the pool and said, “Kid, you’re gonna be the best swimmer in the world.” She threw herself into the sport, winning three state backstroke titles while attending the private Pine Crest School—alma mater of actor Kelsey Grammer and singer Ariana Grande—in Fort Lauderdale. After a bout with endocarditis—an infection of the heart—cost her a chance to make the 1968 Olympic team, Nyad enrolled at Emory University but was expelled for jumping out of a fourth-story dorm room window while wearing a parachute. Nyad transferred to Lake Forest College near Chicago, where she played tennis and swam for the Foresters. There, she came to the attention of Buck Dawson, director of the International Swimming Hall of Fame, who introduced Nyad to marathon swimming. In July 1970, she set a women’s world record of 4 hours, 22 minutes in her first race–a ten-mile swim in Lake Ontario. Upon graduation from Lake Forest in 1973, she returned to south Florida, continued training with Dawson, and two years later broke the world record for swimming around Manhattan. At 28, Nyad attempted to swim from Havana, Cuba, to Key West, but had to abandon nearly 42 hours in after raging seas pushed her west into the Gulf of Mexico. One year later, she retired from competitive swimming and did not take another stroke for 30 years.
For the next three decades, Diana Nyad worked as a sportscaster, writer, and in public radio. After losing her mother, her lover and turning 60 within a short span of time, she decided to try again. “You can’t find a stretch of water more rife with Mother Nature on steroids—for a swimmer—as you can across the Straits of Florida between Havana and Key West,” observed Nyad. Between August 2011 and August 2012, Nyad made three unsuccessful attempts–aborted by poisonous jellyfish, wind, currents and a 12-hour asthma attack–to swim the shark-infested waters from Cuba to Florida. In late summer 2013, sixty-four year old Diana Nyad remained determined to find a way.
Distance swimming is an extreme form of sensory deprivation. There are no sounds or sights in the frigid, inky-black water. Marathon swimmers take in small amounts of ocean water that causes the soft tissue of the lips, tongue and throat to swell, making eating, drinking and breathing difficult. Vomiting is common, which depletes the body of valuable calories. On the morning of August 31, 2013, Diana Nyad—who once lost 29 pounds during 40 hours of swimming—jumped from the seawall of the Hemingway Marina in Havana into the sea. Wearing a specifically designed wetsuit and mask to protect against jellyfish and with a 35-person support team, she embarked upon her fifth and final attempt to become the first person to make the 111-mile swim to Florida without a shark cage. Nyad has a playlist of 65 songs in her mind. She knows each intimately and how many seconds each takes. “When I complete ‘It Ain’t Me Babe,’—Bob Dylan’s version—I know I’ve gone 4 hours, 45 minutes exactly.” She has vivid hallucinations, often seeing the Wizard of Oz and the yellow brick road under the sea. Swimming two miles per hour, she counts strokes in English, Spanish and French, as she is fluent in all three. After 40 hours into her swim from Cuba, she was getting more and more delirious. “I was having trouble gripping into reality. I was stopping and I was shivering. I forgot what we were doing.” At about 2:00 pm on September 2, fifty-three hours after starting and on her fifth try in 35 years, Diana Nyad arrived at a Key West beach, where she was greeted by dozens of cheering spectators. Looking fazed and sunburned, she gestured to her swollen lips and simply said, “seawater.”
On this date in 1979, Diana Nyad celebrated her 30th birthday by setting a world record [both men and women] by swimming 102 miles from North Bimini Island, Bahamas, to Juno Beach, Florida, in 27 ½ hours.