As if her extreme pursuits weren’t enough for a thrilling memoir, ultra-distance swimmer Diana Nyad’s unforgettable storytelling inspires in “Find a Way.”
24Life spoke to the woman who’s moved millions.
Dreaming big was a given for Diana Nyad. As a pool swimmer in Florida in her youth, just as the Cuban Revolution broke out and thousands of Cubans flooded into her home town of Ft. Lauderdale, Nyad stood on the beach one day and asked her mother exactly where Cuba was out there. Her mother pointed to the horizon and said, “There. It’s right over there. It’s so close, you could almost swim there.”
Nyad did become a champion ocean swimmer, breaking a number of world records, including setting the record for both men and women for circling Manhattan Island, in 1975. But years later, she made epic history as the first and only person ever to swim what many ultra-distance swimmers call the Mt. Everest of the oceans: the 100-plus-mile crossing from Cuba to Florida. And she did that maverick feat at the age of 64.
Diana’s first words on that Key West beach, Labor Day, 2013, “Never ever give up,” have inspired millions to chase their own dreams.
Despite the celebrity she has achieved, Nyad explains in her compelling memoir, “Find a Way,” that her Cuba swim was not just a physical endeavor, but more important, one of personal growth and teamwork. “It was more than the story of an athlete or breaking some sports record,” she told 24Life on a recent visit. “It was the story of an individual and a team who refused to quit.”
She cited Henry David Thoreau: “What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals.”
“What I’m proud about most is the person inside…who I am, not what I’m doing. This swim and what it represents to the public at large has afforded me a plethora of rich opportunities to inspire.”
Those opportunities have included a stint on Dancing with the Stars, giving numerous TED Talks, traveling the world giving uplifting story-telling stage shows, and touching millions of lives through her memoir, with a movie version in the works. And at 66, she’s nowhere near done. Starting in 2016, Nyad and her Cuba swim expedition leader Bonnie Stoll are launching a new venture called EverWalk. They plan to lead thousands of people on epic walks across stretches of the United States, for example from Los Angeles to San Diego, from Boston to New York City, from Chicago to Minneapolis. “We’re going to turn America into a nation of walkers,” Nyad says. “Eventually, we’ll walk all the way cross-country and get a million people to do that with us.”
Nyad’s gusto is more than inspiring; it’s infectious, and 24Life wanted to hear more of her insights—as well as find out what inspires her drive today.
“Mastery is tapping your potential to its fullest,” said Nyad. “You may not be the greatest, but if you’ve drilled down to tap every fiber of your best self, how can you look back with regrets?” Always inspired by those around her, Nyad shared a story told to her by Kweisi Mfume, the former President of NAACP, about a little boy raised by his grandmother, who who, on her deathbed, told the child that he could remember her by waking up each morning and saying to himself, “Make this day worthwhile.” Nyad has embraced that charge and it’s her yardstick for mastery: “When I hit the pillow each night I ask myself, ‘Did I make this day worthwhile?’”
And she encourages others to do the same, quoting poet Mary Oliver’s famous question, “What will you do with your one wild, precious life?” Nyad said, “To me, mastery isn’t the classic definition of reaching the pinnacle; it’s the individual seeking potential and making the days worthwhile even if I failed.”
As someone who has completed multiple intense physical challenges culminating in a 53-hour, danger-packed ocean swim, Nyad knows well about how to harness energy to reach your maximum potential. If she had gone as hard as possible in the first 24 hours of her swim to Florida, she wouldn’t have made it. “The people that are best at doing endurance sports know what that energy source is,” she said.
But it’s not only a question of understanding the science and physiology of metabolism and glycogen stores. Nyad said you “have other people come and help you find another drop of energy when you thought there was none left.”
It’s a notion she explores in “Find a Way,” as she extends this philosophy to life. “All of us have boundless energy,” Nyad added. “It doesn’t mean you have to be the center of attention. Energy can be very quiet. It’s just about what makes you feel alive.”
On accomplishment …
She’s set numerous records in swimming and has been a sportscaster and reporter for many years after, but ultimately, Nyad wants to be known for one thing: telling stories beyond the world of sports. “I like to think of myself as a good storyteller. Now, at age 66, I no longer want to be in the position of telling the story of an athlete. I want to tell stories that apply to a larger public,” she said.
“That’s what the book is about; that’s what Everwalk [her project encouraging America to walk] is about.” Nyad revealed she wants her epitaph to read, “She was a master storyteller.” She told 24Life how her school principal had Nyad step in for a grammar school valedictorian too nervous to speak. “That’s my real talent — more than being an athlete — is being a master storyteller. I’m constantly looking on how I can improve on a skill I already have.”
On who she admires …
While Nyad admitted she admires some of the world’s most influential and inspiring people like Michelle Obama, President Obama, and Bill and Melinda Gates, it’s the less-notable people she finds the most remarkable. “Every day as I travel, I meet neighbors down the street, or people in tribal Africa who overcome their obstacles, who chase their dreams, because they want to live this one wild and precious life that each of us has.”
On overcoming personal pain …
Part of being a storyteller, Nyad believes, is revealing the tough stuff along with the good. That’s why she’s made her personal experience with sexual abuse part of her lectures and her memoir.
It was after one of those talks that she met a Holocaust survivor who told a gruesome tale of her own abusive experience, and shared the life-saving advice she received from her adoptive mother after she was liberated from the camp. “You will never forget what happened to you, but you take that story and tuck it into a corner of your soul and don’t live it on your skin, because it’s a beautiful world and people are good,” Nyad recalled of the story the woman told her. “That story helped me more than hours of sitting on the couch of a psychiatrist. You can’t be anything but the sum of what has happened to you in your life, but you can live that meaningful, joyful life.”
Living in the moment is something often taught by meditation and yoga teachers, and it has become a commonplace belief that it’s the key to happiness. While Nyad agrees with those longstanding teachings, she also believes there’s value in examining the past and dreaming about the future. “It takes a balance to examine that past and imagine that future,” she said. “We need to evaluate and take a reckoning of our past, so we don’t make the same mistakes again. We need to dream; it’s part of the human condition to think about who we can be.”
When she goes to bed, Nyad asks herself whether she brought the perspectives of the past and the dreams of the future to a day of being present. And, she plans to do that to the finish. She added, “I want to make that last day a moment where I can close my eyes and close my fists and say, ‘I didn’t win at everything I tried to do. I couldn’t do all the things I wanted to do. But everything I did do, I couldn’t have done even a fingernail better.’” She concluded, with passion: “No regrets.”