Despite the constant threat of jellyfish, sharks, and pounding waves- long distance swimmer Diana Nyad continued to move through the water. Nearing exhaustion, Nayad, 64, was pursuing her dream of swimming non-stop from Havana, Cuba to Key West, Florida. This was her fifth attempt at the 110.86 mile journey.
It is 2 a.m. on the second night of her grueling swim. Nyad has only the red lights from her support boats and the stars above to illuminate her path. As she struggles through the darkness a song begins to play in her head.
“I’ve seen the need and the damage done. A little part of it in everyone. But every junkie's like a settin’ sun.”
Neil Young’s, Needle And The Damage Done, repeats in her head over and over again. She counts each time she sings the song, taking her mind off the pain, pushing her to keep going.
Diana Nyad first became known for her marathon swims in 1975 at 26 for navigating the 28 miles around Manhattan. It took her 8 hours.
At 28, Nyad made her first attempt at the crazy swim from Havana to Key West. Completing this feat, she reasoned, would be her crowning achievement. When she eventually failed, she was devastated. Nyad soon gave up swimming and would not return until she was 60.
“Age is a state of mind,” said Nyad on Boston Public Radio Tuesday. “Who’s going to tell me my limits, of anything I do. I don’t want to be defined, this is my life. I am going to define how well I am.”
Nyad got her now legendary drive from an early age. “When I was nine or ten years old, I got a fear, a choking anxiety about life going by too quickly,” she said. “I have always had this ticking clock, even if I don’t succeed, just don’t let it slip by. That’s the ethic.”
In July of 2010, 60 year-old Nyad began open water training again. The early days of her regular eight hour swims tested her limits. “Those first few months of swimming, I would pass out in my car, slumped over my steering wheel,” Nyad said.
After more than a year of training, on August 7th 2011, Nyad began her second attempt at completing the Havana to Key West swim.
“This was so deep in me, it was so personal. It was the dream that captured my imagination. It was a matter of living the largest life, tapping every ounce of potential in me.” Nyad said about her desire to finish the swim.
Nyad, plagued by a variety of health and environmental problems, got out of the water 29 hours later. She had failed.
Over the next year and a half, Nyad made three other attempts, which included more health scares and life threatening encounters with deadly box jellyfish.
She began her fifth attempt on August 31st 2013. She was then 64. Despite her previous failures, she never gave up. “The resolve was set like a titanium trap in my mind that I didn’t care if I was cold or in pain or throwing my guts up, there was never going to be an instant of doubt. Even when we failed. I never had an instant of doubt. One day, I am going to stumble up on that shore.”
Throughout the swim, Nyad’s trainer, Bonnie Stoll, fed her 700 calories worth of peanut butter and other high protein foods every hour. “It takes tremendous discipline and focus to keep going all those long hours, Nyad said.” “That’s why this swim is called the Mt. Everest of the earth’s oceans. People have been trying, including me, since 1950. We couldn’t find a tougher passage on this earth than that.”
Nayd says the nights were the hardest, the lonely blackness taking a toll on her mental state.
“You're up with Stephen Hawking and the majesty of the universe. Your childhood is running through your head, so that is the most grueling mental part of it. You are alone with your own thoughts,” she said.
To get through those long nights, Nyad would comfort herself by singing songs in her head. Her long swims have helped her memorize 85 songs, many from the song books of Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, The Beatles and other classic musicians of her generation. The one most important to her was Neil Young’s Needle and The Damage Done. “I waited until I was desperate, until I was failing and flailing not to lose. It used to waft through my head, I waited for this one. I waited until I needed it, 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning. You don’t even remember that the sun is going to rise again. I would sing that song a 1000 time in a row, exactly the way Neil Young sang it. If I sing Neil Young's, Needle and the Damage Done a thousand times never losing count, it will be exactly, not a second before or after, 11 hours and seven minutes. That song just took my mind where it needed to go and got me through some lonely night hours,” Nyad said.
After 53 hours of swimming, Nyad reached the shores of Key West on September 2nd at 1:55 p.m. Nyad’s face was puffy and caked with the sea’s salty residue. She walked like a newborn calf onto the shore, bewildered and exhausted. The crowd that was there to greet her cheered. As Nyad reflects on this moment, she does not believe that people remember how momentous her physical feat was, rather it was the words she first spoke when she came out of the water. Nyad had rehearsed other speeches, but something came over her.
“Never, ever give up,” she said to the hordes of media and well wishers wading in the water with her. “Everybody can relate to that. We all have dreams, we all have obstacles, we all have heartache, and if you just don’t give up, you will get to your other shore.”
Diana Nyad is a marathon swimmer, motivational speaker, and writer. Her newest book is called, Find a Way. You can listen to her interview with Boston Public Radio above