Diana Nyad: The Toughest Athlete in the World

Diana Nyad

By Andrea Scarpino

Twice this summer, Diana Nyad has tried to swim the 103 miles between Cuba and Florida without a cage. In other words, exposed to sharks and jellyfish and Man o’War (although she swam with anti-shark support staff in kayaks). In other words, without riding the draft of a boat pulling a cage. And Nyad is 62 years old. She hasn’t tried to set a record like this in 30 years. 


Twice this summer, Nyad didn’t quite make it to Florida. The first time, she endured 11 hours of asthma attacks before being pulled from the water. The second time, she was stung by a Man o’War and jellyfish, stung so badly her eyes and lips swelled, welts spread across her arms. At one point, her spine went numb. For many hours, she continued swimming through incredible pain—until her medical team advised another sting could be deadly, not just to her, but also to her support team, one of whom had also been badly stung as he tried to help clear her of stinging tentacles. And still, she left the water some 80 miles farther than when she entered it.


Of course, she didn’t finish the swim the way she would have liked to finish it. She would have liked to crawl onto that sand in Florida, to have left one country and emerged on another, having pushed her body harder than it wanted to go. She would have liked to hold another swimming record. I get all that. I get that she’s probably disappointed beyond belief—to have trained so hard, and then have two swims disrupted by unexpected, unplanned events—asthma, sea creature sting.


But even though she didn’t make it to Florida, were her two attempts failures? Is it true that she didn’t succeed? I’m not prone to hippydippy optimism, to trying to look on the bright side of things. But when I think about Nyad—and I’ve been thinking about her constantly since I first learned of her swim early this summer—I think of her courage, her belief in her body’s abilities, her strength. This woman, after all, is at an age when many of us talk about “slowing down,” “taking it easy,” an age when former athletes wistfully recall their glory days. Instead, she is setting nearly impossible goals for herself, she is training for hours a day, she is pushing her body harder than she could in her 20s. She is, as she says, “determining {her} own finish line.”


On her website, Nyad quotes a writer for the Dayton Daily News who says, “The toughest athlete in the world is a 62-year-old woman.” I hear a surprise implicit here on the part of the writer—a 62 year old! And a woman! Why that’s impossible! But that surprise, I think, is true of many of us who picture athletes as young and usually male. Who picture them as able-bodied. Who picture them as model-perfect. Nyad is breaking out of that stereotype, in so many ways. She is challenging us to rethink “athlete”—and more than that, rethink the things we’ve told ourselves we’re capable of doing. Of accomplishing. Rethink our own dreams.


As far as I can tell, that is success. Whether or not she tries this particular swim again, whether or not she ever crosses from Cuba to Florida, whether or not . . . I hope she sees this summer as a success. I hope the rest of us do too. This incredible athlete, doing what the vast majority of us can’t even hope to do, no matter our age or ability—I hope we think about her success and use it to motivate our own.


Poet and essayist Andrea Scarpino is a frequent contributor to POTB. You can visit Andrea Scarpino at:  http://www.andreascarpino.com/


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