On Monday, Diana Nyad walked onto the shore at Smathers Beach in Key West just after 2 p.m. She had just swam the roughly 110 miles from Cuba in just under 53 hours without a shark cage or swim fins. She is the first person to accomplish this feat.
This was the fifth and final attempt for the 64-year-old Nyad, who came out of retirement from marathon swimming in 2010 to revisit her dream of making the crossing, which she first attempted in 1978.
Her second, third and fourth attempts between 2010 and 2012 ended for a variety of reasons including weather conditions and repeated stinging by jellyfish and man-of-wars.
Nyad had three things to say to her cheering onlookers when she reached the sand.
“One is, we should never give up,” she said. “And two is, you are never too old to chase your dreams. Three is, it looks like a solitary sport, but it’s a team,” Nyad said as she was whisked away for medical examination.
While Diana Nyad may be a new name to most of the world, she grabbed my attention in 1975 when she made national headlines by swimming the 28 miles around the island of Manhattan in less than eight hours.
At the time I was swimming in the long distance program at the Greater Toledo Aquatic Club. Besides competing in pools, we also hosted one- and four-mile open water races in a local quarry every summer.
When Nyad came into the public eye, her accomplishments were unfathomable to all of who were doing the same thing on a much smaller scale. Nyad, along with another marathon swimmer from the same era, Lynne Cox, became an instant hero to the entire swimming community.
A few of my teammates were so inspired by Nyad’s Manhattan swim that a few years later they made their own open water attempt at crossing the widest part of Lake Erie. It’s 57 statute miles from Cleveland to the shores of Canada and my teammates were eventually pulled out of the water at just under the 30-mile mark.
Nyad’s marathon swimming accomplishments spanned the entire decade of the 1970s. Her first attempt at swimming from Cuba to Key West was in August of 1978, in a shark cage, which ended with her being pulled out after 76 miles. Her final competitive swim was in August of 1979 when she set a world record for distance swimming (both men and women) by swimming 102 miles from the Bahamas to Florida in just over 27 hours.
After Nyad retired, the sport of open water swimming exploded and thousands of athletes, including myself, are racing in oceans, rivers, lakes and bays. A 10K race for men and women was finally introduced at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 5K, 10K and 25K races are contested at the FINA World Championships every two years.
Here in D.C., during the summer months, up to 80 swimmers can be seen jumping off the pier every Thursday night in National Harbor for swims out around the buoys in the Potomac River. The swims are part of a training series run by Wave One Swimming. The group will host the 2013 Swim for the Potomac which includes open water races in the 3K, 5K and 10K disciplines on Sept. 15.
Just a few days before Nyad — who is openly gay — began her epic swim on Aug. 31, I met two women at the pool who were training for the Potomac River 7.5 Mile for the Environment next year.
I asked how long they had been active in open water swimming and one said, “Oh, we are suffering from late-life athleticism.”
When Diana Nyad finished her incredible journey on Monday, I wondered if those two women realized that their late-life athleticism was probably in some way related to Nyad’s accomplishments.
Since completing her swim, Nyad’s Twitter feed has been overwhelmed with messages from well-wishers including a special tweet from President Obama. Several men, myself included, admitted to shedding tears over her triumph and several parents stated that their children have a new hero.
I am incredibly happy that the world is honoring Nyad for her astounding athletic accomplishment.