Conversations: Diana NyadThe celebrated swimmer talks about staying awake and aware as a top athlete

Diana Nyad speaking at the 2015 Miami Book Fair
Diana Nyad discusses her book ‘Find a Way’ at the 2015 Miami Book Fair on November 2, 2015.

“Conversations” is an ongoing series of talks with authors, thinkers, leaders and supporters of the MDC Community.

In her inspiring memoir, Find a Way, swimmer, Diana Nyad recounts her record-breaking swim from Cuba to Florida at the age of sixty-four and of her extraordinary quest to live life at the highest level, in and out of the water.

Nyad was a featured author at the 2015 Miami Book Fair. Staff writer Gabriel Riera sat down with her for a one-on-one conversation.

Gabriel Riera: Do you consider yourself a happy person? 

Diana Nyad: I am. I wouldn’t call myself content though. I think there’s a difference between happiness and contentment. I see people who are content who are so…relaxed. Their entire bodies are relaxed. I’m always in state of high energy! And sometimes that doesn’t lead to peacefulness. I’m not a quiet soul. I’m a fiery soul. That doesn’t mean I’m not happy. It’s interesting you ask that…more and more in life I become happier. I’m more in awe of this life we get to live. I’m in a state of appreciation, if not happiness.

GR: If you were a teacher of happiness what would you teach?

DN: For me, the way to feel happy day by day is to not have any regrets. We can’t do all the things in life we’d like to do. There just isn’t time. Life is short. So the least you can do is take the time you have and live it the way you want to live it. Be proud of yourself. Help other people. Take it all in. For me, the only crime in life is to be disengaged.

GR: Did you see this for yourself at age sixty-six  – a top athlete, an author, being openly gay and accepted? Is this the way you saw it, or is anything surprising to you?

DN: I will say it took me by great surprise to be an athlete again. I’ve always been an athlete, but not a world-class, performing athlete again. That has taken me quite by surprise. But the rest of it…often, people will come up to me and ask me — what kind of lecture guru have you been working with? You talk in such eloquent terms. As if I just started all this! I’ve been a writer my whole life, I’ve been a public speaker my whole life. Yes, the opportunities are a little bigger at the moment, but the messaging, the ability to tell a story I think has always been a talent of mine.  I do many things poorly in life…but…I tell a good story.

“For me, the only crime in life is to be disengaged.”

GR: As you mentioned before, you’re a fiery person. You achieve so much. You push boundaries and limits. How do you bring that energy down, reign it in when it comes to intimate relationships?

DN: I don’t like going through life half-awake but I don’t think we’re all the same every minute of our lives. I take my dogs for a walk at dawn at the beach. I’m not a fiery individual then. I’m “awake” I’m taking it all in. But you don’t have to be over the top, banging people over the head to be awake and alert and conscious of what’s going on. However, at some moments you need to rise to that fire, or else nothing is going to get done.

GR: It sounds like you value awareness and consciousness. Do you have a spiritual practice that helps you stay awake and aware?

DN: I don’t. It’s always a confounding thing to me, that word “spirituality.” I’m not sure what the definition is. To me religion or one’s religious practice, comes way below a bigger love of humanity. We could go out and find an ardent Christian and a devout Jew and a Buddhist who truly believes in the principles of Buddhism and a person who has studied Islam his whole life and we could get up on stage and discuss it all. I bet you anything that all of us, even the atheist, would eventually come around to saying — but what is it really all about? Do you try to love the Earth that we’re living on and try to leave it a better place? Do you have respect for your brother and sister and treat them with respect like you want to be treated? To me, religion is about individual faith, but above that is the umbrella of “spirituality,” a love of our fellow humankind.

“It was such a magical story and a magical ending. If you like an epic story, this was one.”

Diana Nyad steps onto Smathers Beach in Key West
Diana Nyad steps onto Smathers Beach in Key West on September 2, 2013, becoming the first person to swim from Havana, Cuba to Key West without a shark cage.

GR: One of the images that burned itself into my brain is you coming out of the water after having completed the (Cuba to Miami) swim successfully. You seemed like you had given everything you had to give. What was that moment like?

DN: I was dazed, I think, both physically and emotionally. I beat myself up for the next couple of weeks about the fact that I didn’t turn around (to acknowledge the entire team). Some of them were standing there close to me. But I had a huge team! It was such a magical story and a magical ending. If you like an epic story, this was one. And I got to live it out loud for all these years. But at that moment, I didn’t turn around and surround myself with my beloved team…although, I did out in the ocean. We had two hours to go and I asked them to come around me. I said, I guess someone’s going to take my picture soon, but let’s not forget we did this together. We made history together.

GR: How did you feel about the naysayers, the critics, the “bad-mouthers” who came out after all that?

DN: It hurt. I won’t pretend it didn’t. I tried to stay classy about it and not act all pissed off. On the one hand, most of them — upwards of 95 percent — were just respectful people that come from the world of marathon swimming. And they had the right to ask the vetting questions. After all, we are in what you might call “the Lance Armstrong era” so that almost any record is like — did she take steroids? Did she cheat in some way? How could she have done this impossible thing?

So my navigator John Bartlett and I and a few members of the team got on a long, marathon phone call with all those people. John Bartlett got out his electronic devices that measured the GPS tracking and proved, every eighth of a mile, where we were at that moment. Almost every single one of them said, I hope you don’t mind but we had to ask that. There are a couple who are haters who are still out there. They think I’m total fraud, that I didn’t do anything I said. I didn’t swim around Manhattan Island. I didn’t swim from Cuba to Florida. And if that’s the way they want to spend their lives – you know, what a waste.

GR: So… the shark is our College mascot.

DN: Yes, that’s wonderful.

“It’s got to be about the journey, rather than the destination.”

GR: You swam without a shark cage. How do you feel about sharks?

GR: I honestly was more terrified by the Box Jelly Fish. I’ve been brushed by a shark. It’s a big, strong animal and you feel how little and insignificant you are when you get brushed aside by that body. But we had a flotilla of boats, shark divers, and a little can of shark bomb repellant. We go in the pitch black of night and you can’t see your hand in front of your face. I can’t see anything and the people in the boat hear my hand splashing and that’s how they know I’m still out there somewhere. If my guys see the translucent eyes below and they know there’s a predator that’s lurking a little too close they go in with this PVC piping that looks like a big coat hanger. We don’t use any fatal gear. Sharks have very sensitive snouts, so the guys go down and just tap them and get them interested in that and away from me.

But the Box Jelly Fish, that’s an otherworldly pain. It’s the most potent venom on Earth. I’m lucky I lived through it. It’s almost always a fatal sting. It’s the size of a sugar cube and it’s much more deadly than a shark.

GR: How do you cultivate the spirit of winning to the point where you are a winner, without becoming a shark?

DN: I don’t think about the word “win.” When you make it to the top of Mt. Everest (for instance) you haven’t “won,” you’ve journeyed.  And sometimes, you make it.  It’s got to be about the journey, rather than the destination. I have to feel that the journey is worthwhile.