Updated: Sep 27, 2021
Who: Diana Nyad
City: Fort Lauderdale (now living in Los Angeles CA)
Quote: “Better than the sunrise, it saw the lights of Key West.”
“I became a serious swimmer in 7th grade at Pine Crest School. The idea of swimming from Cuba’s Havana Harbor to Smathers Beach in Key West started on the day my mom and I were together at A1A and E. Las Olas. She pointed her finger east and told me that Cuba was so close that I could swim there.
I never forgot that.
51 years later at age 64, I became the first person to swim the 111 miles, the equivalent of five English Channel swims, from Havana’s Hemingway Marina to Smathers Beach in Key West. That shark infested swim in September of 2013-- without a shark cage -- took me just under 53 hours to complete.
Once the initial excitement of finally doing this wore off, this is how I stayed motivated to swim all of that time: I played music in my head. Here is a sampling: American Pie Don by McLean, Hungry Heart by Bruce Springsteen, Horse With No Name by America, Don’t Think Twice by Bob Dylan, She’s Always A Woman by Billy Joel, It Ain’t Me Babe by Bob Dylan and lots more. I think I listened to Imagine by John Lennon 100 times. That is what got me through the dark nights and mean jellyfish. I also counted my strokes to 100 in German then again in French, Spanish and English.
The first time I tried this swim was in 1978 at age 28. I learned from each of my four failed attempts. For example, the box jellyfish problem was solved by wearing a custom designed protective mask. It prevented the stings but added extra weight which slowed me down.
My training was as much psychological as physical.
Those inky nights were treacherous, full of wind and big walls of seawater. I had to kick hard to keep my face above water. My crew followed me in a nearby boat and fed me banana chunks, spoons of peanut butter and gave me water every hour. By the second night, after 40 hours in the water, I started to feel disoriented. Even though it was warm out, I started to get cold, nauseous and even forgot sometimes what I was doing.
I had the best possible crew that included my best friend Bonnie, shark divers, kayakers to keep me on course, doctors, weather routers, shark experts and the people who sang and talked to me while I swam.
I swam through two nights like this and got a wave of excitement when I saw the sunrise ahead of me after that second night. Those lights were not the sunrise, they were the lights of Key West. I had about 15 miles to go and I knew that I could do it.
This was eight years ago. When someone asks me if I am going to do it again, I tell them there are other mountains to climb. This one was a 35-year dream and it’s over. How could I have a better story and a better ending?
This is what I want to say to inspire others from my swim:
I want millions of my AARP sisters and brothers to look at what I did and say,“I’m going to go write that novel I thought it was too late to do. I’m going to go work in Africa on that farm where those people need help. I’m going to adopt a child. It’s not too late, I can still live my dreams.”
“I am Anita Mitchell and I collect people stories, much the same way people collect shoes or baseball cards or Lladro porcelain figurines. During my 26 years at WSVN7, I had the front-row seat to people stories and it was there I learned about the extraordinariness of the ordinary.
Since retiring from television news, I serve on the Board of Directors of Different Brains, a charitable foundation that supports neurodiverse adults. I also serve on the Board of Directors of the Broward County Sports Hall of Fame. We honor local residents who have set unique standards of excellence through sports.
Since 2004, I have swum competitively with our local Swim Fort Lauderdale Masters Swim Team (SFTL).
I don’t really know how the writing and the swimming and the neurodiverse and honoring local sports figures are connected but I know in my heart that they are.