Is This Diana Nyad's Summer?
Diana Nyad -- a record-breaking, world-famous swimming champion in the 1970s -- has not spent the ensuing years awake at night over the 100-mile Cuba-Florida swim she never completed.
But on the day she turned 60 almost two years ago, something snapped. "I was filled with the usual angst of someone my age," she says during a rare break from working out. "Holy crap. I used to be 20?"
She began to size up her life and wonder about unfinished business. "I thought 'I want to get back to feeling like I am so committed to being the best self I can be.'"
A lot of people, including those hitting decade markers, talk like this, but few take it as seriously as Nyad: She decided to revisit a swim she'd begun in 1978 -- 103 miles, from Cuba to Key West -- and, because of harsh conditions, not been able to finish.
Once she decided to go for it, her life changed. "Since that day, I've not felt my age," says Nyad who also is a public radio commentator who can be heard on KCRW in her home turf in Southern California.
"I'm so keyed up; my adrenaline is flowing so hard," she says. "Because of the training, I'm in supreme shape. I'm looking at a brick wall right now, and I feel like I could get up and walk right through it. If I don't make it, it's not because I didn't train hard enough."
The training, of course, has been grueling: She's been doing ocean swims since January, some of them 15 hours at a time; the final swim will require her to swim something like 60 hours straight -- in the warmer waters of Mexico and the Caribbean. (Because these long swims tear down body tissue and require a week of recovery, her swims now, as she approaches the big event, are a modest six to seven hours.)
And for as long as she can remember, Nyad has been taking 100-mile bike rides every Friday.
Of course, strength and physical endurance are only parts of it: This kind of swim takes incredible mental concentration, as well. "When you're feeling great, you're just cruising along," she says. "Your mind is tripping out on philosophical thoughts. When you're unhappy, your stomach's upset -- you don't know what to think about, and you have to talk yourself back into it. Sometimes I literally start crying."
Nyad also has a large support team that will fill five boats to help her sort the logistics and guard against unpleasant developments. Like, say, sharks. Nyad will be protected by two electronic shark shields, which repel the carnivorous beasts. But an athlete swimming recently in the Cayman Islands found that the devices are not perfect: "These oceanic whitetip sharks came in from everywhere," Nyad says. "They didn't care about the electricity at all."
And let's not forget the Portuguese man o' war. "If you get their tentacles wrapped around you, you could go into convulsions," she says, concern in her voice. "My doctor, onboard, will have a shot of Benadryl ready -- that can bring down your shock. With most jellyfish, you just swear and keep going. But a man o' war puts venom into your system -- that's the end of your swim."
The intense regimen of exercise, diet and planning hasn't worn out Nyad; it's invigorated her.
"When this is over," she says, "I want to keep living like this." She doesn't mean she'll do a 100-mile swim every year, but that she'll keep setting goals for herself. "It's the antidote to feeling regret. Be bold, every day."
She's heard from all kinds of people approaching or moving past 60 who are setting themselves physical challenges or pulling their unfinished novels out of the drawer. "That's the essence of this -- it's not about swimming. We listen to society -- 'Oh, you're 50? 60?' Because our parents thought of that as old age... I feel a lot of vitality."
Last summer Nyad had prepared similarly for the swim, but delays in getting a visa from the Cuban government and then the weather -- for a second time -- made it impossible. Today she's in the odd position of having trained very rigorously for an event with complex logistics, but without knowing exactly when conditions will allow her to jump in.
Now that summer is here -- and she's arrived in Florida to prepare -- she's got her fingers crossed. "Right now, I wish it was tomorrow," she says. "I'm ready."
July 26 update: Diana Nyad by the Numbers
The Skinny on Diana Nyad
If I only had 15 minutes a day to do a workout: "I'd do 100 burpees," an exercise that involves squatting, kicking and leaping in place. "You're trained aerobically, and you're working the haunches and the gut."
Breakfast of champions: "Right now I'm eating about 9,000 calories a day. Today I had two eggs, a huge porridge thing, fruit, a protein shake... a big, carbohydrate breakfast."
Guilty pleasure: "I tell people if I was on death row, give me a hot chocolate and hot buttered raisin-cinnamon toast."
If I knew then what I know now: "I used to fuel on anger: I'd pound my fist and swear underwater. John McEnroe says if he had to do it over again, he'd have a cool, intelligent head. And I feel the same. Now I swim in awe."
Top songs to swim by: "It might sound odd -- you might expect me to sing something like Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah.' But the truth is, my number-one song that gets me through, especially at night, is Neil Young's 'The Needle and the Damage Done.' Isn't that crazy? A song about heroin -- but it all smoothes out. It's the cadence. When I'm desperate and can't remember the lyrics, I sing [the theme song to] 'The Beverly Hillbillies.'"
SecondAct contributor Scott Timberg writes about music, the arts and film from Los Angeles. He runs the West Coast culture blog TheMisreadCity.