10 Things You Should Know About Cuba-To-Miami Swimmer Diana Nyad, If You Don't Already

The woman just completed a 110-mile swim at the age of 64. Personally, my biggest accomplishment today was making a sandwich.
Publish date:
September 4, 2013
role models, lgbt issues, female athletes, athletes, diana nyad

God, these past few weeks have been rough, huh? I know that always feels like the case with the news, but this past fortnight has felt particularly deadening, to the point where I find myself reacting to current events with little, if any, emotion. I've gone so far into rage and worry and sadness that I've sort of come out the other side into near-apathy, which I'm sure happens to a lot of us every once in a while.

I think my housemate said it best last night, when she staggered out into the kitchen and blinked around a few times before noticing me sitting on the counter. "Oh!" she said. "Oh. Hey. I didn't -- sorry, I didn't know you were … there."

"No worries," I said, drinking my water.

"Well," she continued. "I just, you know. Kinda got sucked into the news."

"I feel you," I said, and motioned her over so I could pat her on the shoulder. We stood there in silence for a second, then she turned and left without saying anything else.

Welcome to my brain these days, housemate.

It's gotten so bad that when I heard about Diana Nyad's successful swim from Cuba to Florida, which ended on Monday and set an open-water record for endurance swims, I didn't even register it. "Oh, cool," I thought. "Swimming. Great. Good on her."

Then I blinked. Scrolled back up. "Holy shit!" I said to my empty room. "Holy shit, Diana Nyad!"

I'd been following Nyad's career on and off since 2011 or so, since the last time she made the attempt to swim from Cuba to Florida. Yet somehow, I'd totally missed the fact that she was even trying again until after the fact.

If, like me, you're somewhere behind the times on the incredibly impressive exploits of one Diana Sneed Nyad, here's a quick primer of things about her in no particular order that I think are very important:

1. She Sings While She Swims

I'm sorry, but how cute is that? Sings. While. She. Swims. (Presumably in her head.) There is officially nothing I want more in the world than to make Diana Nyad a swimming mixtape. Spoiler: though she's apparently a Dylan fan, it would mostly just contain Beyonce.

2. She's 64

She swam 110 miles in open water at the age of 64. I'm not even 25 and I can't walk 15 miles on flat ground. Quoth Diana, though, after she'd dragged herself onto the beach: "You're never too old to chase your dreams."

3. She's a Lesbian

Considering that one of the most talked-about sports events on an international stage is taking place in a country where LGBT "propaganda" is illegal, it's pretty fucking cool that Nyad says she rarely felt pressure as an athlete to conceal her sexuality after she figured out that she was gay at 21. (Not so as a TV personality, however; ABC reportedly told her not to bring her partner to company social events and to "make sure her lesbianism…didn't scare the Nielsen families.")

4. Swimming is her Clandestine Lover

OK, not really. But she did take up the sport again after a 30-year hiatus following the end of a decade-long relationship with the "love of her life." After she started training, she was so happy that many of her friends thought she'd taken up with a new squeeze. Diana has thus set a precedent for us all: the next time your Nana asks you whether you've met a nice boy to settle down with, you can just chirp, "Nope! Just the ocean" and plunge into a nearby sea. Thanks, D.

5. She's Sponsored by Secret

This is kind of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it's historically very difficult for female athletes, especially older ones, to get corporate sponsorship. (Remember Sarah Robles, the strongest woman in America who spent the summer up to the 2012 Olympics living in poverty?) So it's great that Secret has thrown their not-inconsiderable weight behind Nyad.

On the other, this means that Nyad's unbelievable accomplishment was immediately followed by Secret tweeting things like "If you plan on swimming from Cuba to Florida, be sure the waterproof deo is handy."

6. She Did it Without A Shark Cage

Nyad is the first person ever to swim from Cuba to Florida without the aid of a shark cage. (In 1997, Susie Maroney made the trek from the quasi-security and wake benefit of a cage being pulled behind a boat.) You may be more likely to die from digging a hole in the sand at the beach than a shark attack, but shark attacks in the Florida Straits are disproportionately high compared to most of the rest of the world thanks to the warmth of the ocean in that area.

Nyad swam with a team of kayakers, some of whom were armed with shark-repelling sonic tools, but she was still subject to the tender ministrations of box jellyfish, whose sting can be deadly and whose TLC effectively defeated Diana's last try in 2011.

7. She Swam Around Manhattan

It took her two tries. After the first, she came down with a virus, apparently caused by the fact that the waters around Manhattan are disgusting. It takes a very specific temperament to give that another go.

8. She's a Really Good Athlete

Aside from the obvious, she was also once ranked thirteenth among women in the U.S. for squash playing. Even when she wasn't swimming in the 80s and 90s, she'd often ride her bike 100 miles just for funsies. She also wrote a fitness book in 1981, which unfortunately came out the same year as Jane Fonda's and thus languished in relative obscurity. Which is a real shame, because I'm sure it would have been way more effective in actually training women how to be lean, mean, shark-fighting machines.

Plus, look at her on the cover! Shorts game ON POINT.

9. She's a Sexual Assault Survivor

Diana has spoken at length in the past about her history of assault by her high school swim coach. In a documentary about her life, she describes how channeling her anger and fear surrounding the incidents into swimming allowed her to find a place of emotional safety even while she felt afraid to tell her parents about the abuse. When she finally did tell her mother, she advised Nyad not to use words like "rape" because the coach "was a man of prominence."

It takes a lot of courage to speak continuously and openly about sexual abuse, and for Nyad to describe her complex feelings around the incident in so much detail effectively reinforces the narrative that the only person to blame for sexual abuse is the abuser.

10. She Likes to PartyIn 1975, the first thing Diana did after climbing out of the disease-ridden Hudson River was go to a victory party. More than thirty years later, that hasn't changed: two miles away from Florida shore, her last words to her crew before the home stretch were "Let's get going so we can have a whopping party." There's someone with her priorities straight (and hopefully Hillary was invited to the festivities).

What did I miss? Can we all talk about how great Diana Nyad is for the rest of the day at the minimum?

Kate is on Twitter: @katchatters