What Does It Take To Dive Into Dangerous Waters?

Jul 18, 2014
Originally published on April 20, 2015 10:18 am

Part 1 of the TED Radio Hour episode Champions.

About Diana Nyad's TedTalk

Stung by jellyfish, choking on salt water, hallucinating in the pitch black, 64-year-old Diana Nyad kept swimming. She describes the journey of her historic 110-mile swim from Cuba to Florida.

About Diana Nyad

From 1969 to 1979, Diana Nyad was known as the world's best long-distance swimmer. In 1979, she finished the then-longest swim in history: 102.5 miles from Bimini to Florida. At age 60, she began preparing for her most ambitious swim: 110 miles from Cuba to Florida. She'd tried it once in her 20s and didn't make it. With a strong team and new commitment, she jumped back into the sea decades later.

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. I'm really intrigued by this story from when you were - I don't know, four or five - and your dad told you about your name - about Nyad.

DIANA NYAD: Yeah, yeah.

RAZ: This is Diana Nyad, the long-distance swimmer.

NYAD: My dad was a Greek-Egyptian. He spoke in a very thick accent. He was dramatic, he was theatrical, he was a emotional. And the day I turned 5, he calls me in - we had a little den - and he said, come here. Come here, darling. Today, you are 5 years old and I have been waiting for this day because today, darling, I am going to tell you the most significant thing I will ever tell you.

Look in the dictionary - Naiad. In Greek Mythology, the Naiad swam in the lake, river, fountain and ocean to protect for the gods, all right? Now, look in my eyes. Next definition - Naiad - girl or woman champion swimmer. Oh my God, darling, your destiny is written in black and white.

So the word - I became a swimmer. And oddly enough, I'm a Naiad. But that's not the word I heard - I heard the word champion. And I - I believe it. I believe it's somewhere deep on a cellular level.

RAZ: In 2013, Diana Nyad became the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida in open water - no shark cage, no breaks. And the thing about it was, she'd been trying to do that swim for more than 30 years. She tried and failed on four different occasions before she eventually made it. But the question is why? Why did she persist?

Well, our show today is all about people like Diana - champions - ideas about their drive, their perseverance, and sometimes even the genetics that propel them to accomplish amazing feats of athletic achievement.

Here's Diana Nyad on the Ted stage.

NYAD: Yeah, so a couple years ago I was turning 60 and I don't like being 60. And I started grappling with this existential angst of what little I had done with my life. Who had I become? How had I spent my valuable time? How could this have gone by like lightning?

And I decided the remedy to all this malaise was going to be for me to chase an elevated dream. It was an old dream that was from so many years ago - three decades ago. The only sort of world-class swim I had tried and failed at back in my twenties was going from Cuba to Florida. It was deep in my imagination. No one's ever done it without a shark cage. It's probably at my speed at my age - for anybody's speed at anybody's age - going to take 60, maybe 70 hours of continuous swimming, never getting out on the boat. And I started to train. I hadn't swum for 31 years.

RAZ: When most of us think about swimming, we think about like swimming in a bay or in a protected area of the ocean or in a swimming pool. But on this swim, you're not only out in the open water, you've got the Gulf Stream running right under you, which is like a giant river.

NYAD: Yes, oh, yes it is. You know, there's this hundred plus mile difference between the North Shore of Cuba and the South Shore of Florida - the Keys. And over most of that span of the hundred miles, the Gulf Stream shrinks and expands every day. Some days it's only 40 miles across, some days it's 80 miles across.

And this current has a countercurrent below it. And then what you got to picture, Guy, though, is it's not just the stream itself but the eddies that are swirling. These are these counterclockwise eddies. Picture them like a vortex 'cause once you're in them, you're never out of them ever.

I stood on that shore and I looked across that - to that long, long faraway horizon and I asked myself - do you have it? And I started swimming and oh my God it was glassy. And we know it - all 50 people on the boat - we all knew this was it. This was our time.

And I reminded myself a couple hours in it's not going to feel this good all the way across. And I was thinking of the hyperthermia and maybe some shoulder pain, but no - two hours in - wham. Never in my life - I knew there were Portuguese man-of-war, all kinds of moon jellies, all kinds of things - but the box jellyfish from the southern oceans is not supposed to be in these waters. And I was on fire - excruciating, excruciating pain. I'd feel like boiling hot oil I'd been dipped in and I'm yelling out, fire, fire, fire.

And the next thing is paralysis. I'd feel it in the back and then I'd feel it in the chest up here and I can't breathe. And now I'm not swimming with a nice long stroke, I'm sort of crabbing at this rate. Then come convulsions. And at 41 hours, this body couldn't make it. The devastation of those stings had taken the respiratory system down so that couldn't make the progress I wanted, and the dream was crushed.

RAZ: I mean, it's amazing because just a year later you were back out there. You were trying the same swim again with the same jellyfish.

NYAD: Well, you come back to say what next? Will I wear pantyhose over the face? Will I wear this and this? And finally this last time, I went to a prostheticist - he makes all kinds of masks for people who have had grenades blow up in their faces, who've had fires and are going to have to have skin grafts on their faces. He makes these beautiful eerie silicon masks, and he made one for me. It took us a year to get the breathing right, to get the eyes right. But I wore that mask and that was the last hurrah because I had surgeon's gloves, I had a tight like sprinter's kind of suit, and now finally, I had the face - even the mouth covered - 'cause those animals are genius at finding animal skin and protein at night.

So I didn't go out there thinking I'm just so tough I'm going to get stung again - no. I went back saying I'm going to go to the nth degree to find a way of swimming through them whereby they cannot sting me. It's the only way.

RAZ: (Laughing) It's terrifying.

NYAD: It's crazy stuff, isn't it?

It's the fifth time I stand on this shore - the Cuban shore - looking out at that distant horizon believing again that I'm going to make it. The team is proud of our four attempts. Bonnie is my best friend and head handler. And as we're looking out, kind of a surreal moment before the first stroke standing on the rocks at Marina Hemingway, Bonnie and I look at each other and we say, this year, the mantra is - and I've been using it in training - find a way. Let's find our way to Florida.

And we started. And for the next 53 hours - oh, it was an intense, unforgettable life experience to be in the azure blue of the Gulf Stream. You're looking down miles and miles and miles to feel the majesty of this blue planet we live on. It's awe-inspiring.

And then there are the crises. The vomiting starts, the seawater, you're not well, you're wearing a jellyfish mask for the ultimate protection. The hypothermia sets in. The water's 85 degrees and yet you're losing weight and using calories. And as you come over toward the side of the boat - not allowed to touch it, not allowed to get out - but Bonnie and her team hands me nutrition and asks me what I'm doing, how - am I all right?

And coming into that third morning Bonnie made a decision that I was suffering. I was hanging on by a thread. And she said come here, and I came close to the boat and she said look, look out there. And I saw a stream of white light along the horizon. And I said, it's going to be morning soon. She said no, those are the lights of Key West. It was 15 more hours, which for most swimmers would be a long time.


NYAD: And now the shore is coming. And there's just a little part of me that's sad the epic journey is going to be over. But the point is and the point was that every day of our lives is epic. And I'll tell you, when I walked up onto that beach - staggered up onto that beach - it was a very real moment with that crowd, with my team. We did it - I didn't do it - we did it.

RAZ: It's amazing if you think about it this capacity that you have almost to be able to defy human capability.

NYAD: You know what I think it really is? I think it's the fear not of dying - I'm quite accepting of that - but I think that my motivation in feeling that tremendous pressure that our time is so precious and so limited - that's what drives me. That's what drives me to dream big and not give into fears.

RAZ: Yeah. I mean, it seems like you were more scared of not making it, right? That you were of...

NYAD: Bingo.

RAZ: ...Than you were of being killed.

NYAD: Guy, bingo. I think it's interesting, you know, I think when you talk to writers and scientists, you know, who are working on one particular project all their careers and certainly athletes - I think the fear of failure is stronger, you know, more motivating than any other fear they've got. I know for me, you know, when I stand on that shore - which as you know I did five times - I wasn't saying I hope I don't get eaten by a shark. I hope that box jellyfish doesn't come up and get me again. I hope maybe we get someone luck with the currents. Maybe all that's buzzing around low, but more than anything I don't want to fail. I want that destination. I want it.


RAZ: Diana Nyad on September 2, 2013, she walked ashore on Key West after swimming for 53 hours from Cuba.


RAZ: You can hear both of her TED talks at ted.npr.org. I'm Guy Roz. In a moment, more ideas on what makes a champion. This is the Ted Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.