Diana Nyad: Epic, Every Day

By Lashaun Dale

Diana Nyad, a modern Renaissance woman (athlete, author, journalist, philanthropist, actor), is patient with the never-ending fascination with her achievements “at her age.” Nyad would have found a kindred spirit in baseball legend Leroy Robert “Satchel” Paige, whose accomplishments also tested the limits of public imagination and prompted him to ask, “How old would you be if you didn’t know your age?”

Nyad is a champion ocean swimmer, who broke a number of world records early in her career, including setting the record for both men and women for circling Manhattan Island in 1975. And years later, she made history again as the only person to ever swim what many of her peers described as a nearly impossible feat: swimming the 100-plus-mile crossing from Cuba to Florida. She succeeded in this epic quest at age 64, proving that age is no barrier to the realization of a dream.

But that’s beside the point for Nyad, whose TED talks, speaking engagements and books are filled with wit and wisdom, and whose active life serves as the outward expression of her thinking. Not content simply to reflect on past accomplishments, Nyad and her longtime coach Bonnie Stoll have moved on to launch EverWalk, a campaign to get America walking—and they’ve logged hundreds of miles on foot alongside thousands of people in the process.

24Life recently spoke to Nyad about her approach to longevity—what inspires her, how to face adversity and how to wring every last drop out of daily life.

You can change your mind—and enjoy the journey

“People come up to me all the time at speeches and say they know they have passion and discipline, but they just don’t know what their personal dream is, much less how to pursue it,” Nyad says. “I tell them to look up the old Goethe quote, the one that says there is magic in beginnings. Take that first step toward something, anything. There is no shame in changing your mind later, in finding out it’s a path you really don’t want to travel. But the bravery and the energy you summon to create purpose usually helps you rise to chase either that dream or another one.”

All professional athletes are competitive, and Nyad is no exception. But she viewed the dream of her landmark Cuba swim as more than mere physical accomplishment. “The Cuba dream was a ‘holy grail’ for me. But it was never purely about the final triumph on the Florida shore. It was about the grueling journey, the worthy journey of body, mind and soul to get there,” she explains. “And it was the desire to chase after a piece of history that was pretty close to impossible. It’s the journey I remember, and that drive still pushes me to climb other proverbial mountains and to continue on the path of discovery.”

Subtract age from the equation

Absorbed as she was with the path to her goal, Nyad was attuned to her own state of being and state of mind—neither of which is dictated by age, and both which transcend it. “When I was training for the Cuba swim, my age never occurred to me. I am real about my age, and I don’t pretend to be younger than I am, but I check in with my body and my brain, and if I am entirely capable of doing something, I have no interest in the opinion of others to the contrary,” Nyad says. “In fact, I had no idea there were critics saying I would fail. I was sequestered in my own private bubble of belief and inspiration.”

Her laser focus and self-confidence provided an endless reservoir of motivation as she trained for one of her life’s greatest accomplishments. “As I trained, I didn’t have to have a talk with myself about quitting,” Nyad says. “The resolve was so strong that, no matter how close to death I came with the venom of the deadly box jellyfish, no matter the four epic failures, and the unfathomable number of lonely, painful hours of training, it never put a nick in me—the resolve was too strong. Nothing could have kept me from getting back up again, and again, and again, to finally reach that other shore.”

Redefine power walking

Clearly, Nyad also thrives on discovery. The title of her memoir, “Find a Way” (Knopf, 2015), is not just a directive or a mantra, as she and her team had to experiment and try new ways to cope with environmental challenges ranging from harsh elements and unfavorable weather patterns to finding ways to get through long stretches of dark nothingness in the water at night.

“Risk-taking is the lifeblood of discovery,” Nyad says. “Playing it safe dulls the mind and quiets curiosity. From my one-woman show on Broadway to spearheading a national sex abuse archive to my speaking engagements, I want to be living large every minute of every day.”

Now Nyad and Stoll, her Cuba swim expedition leader and best friend, have launched EverWalk. “After the swim, we wanted to give that feeling of empowerment to the masses,” she explains. “Even though humans have been walking the earth for ages, we have become a car-addicted, screen-addicted nation. So we decided to create EverWalk as a push to get all Americans out walking in our neighborhoods, talking to each other.”

Nyad and Stoll hope that getting people out to walk also will prompt us to lift our gaze to the horizon and imagine who we want to be and what we want to do. “EverWalk is on a mission to get a million people walking regularly with us,” Nyad says. “We are developing a network of ambassadors across the country, showcasing them and their EverWalk groups on our Facebook Live sessions. For example, Bonnie and I will be in Telluride, Colorado, from September 21 to 23, and we will be leading walks and conducting town halls and yoga and swim clinics while we are there.”

The Telluride event will include naming an EverWalk ambassador to develop a year-round walking program there. If successful, Nyad says the plan is to treat the program as a pilot for many other towns across the country.

Epic and everyday impact

Daily, vigorous exercise is a core value in Nyad’s life. But over many years filled with both triumph and disappointment, she has developed a life philosophy that is much broader and deeper than physical fitness alone.

“I tell everyone that epic is within all of us. We all have the spirit to reach for the stars,” Nyad says. “But more important, more lasting, more meaningful than epic is full-tilt engagement in our communities, in our world and in our own individual lives. Having close personal bonds, people in your life who care deeply for you, and for whom you would do anything and everything, that’s what makes for true happiness.”

You can join the EverWalk Nation (free) at EverWalk.com, which entitles you to the enewsletter so you can join Diana Nyad and Bonnie Stoll in both real-time and virtual walks.

Video credit: Tom Casey, box24studio.com
Photo credit: Tom Casey, box24studio.com; Courtesy EverWalk; Courtesy Diana Nyad; Courtesy EverWalk; Todd Cribari, inspirostudio.com


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Lashaun Dale

Lashaun Dale loves yoga and fitness and finds magic in movement, music and mobs of people. She holds degrees in International Relations, Philosophy and Applied Anthropology, as well as an MPH from the School of Public Health at Columbia University in New York. With two decades of group fitness programming experience, Dale is former editor-in-chief of 24Life magazine, a regular contributor to SELF and Women’s Health and Fitness, as well as popular blogs and podcasts. She’ll teach yoga anytime she is given an opportunity to get her om on.