YAKIMA, Wash. — Diana Nyad favors certain words – tenacity, persistence, epic, champion – in telling her story. All seem appropriate for the first person to swim from Cuba to Key West without a shark cage.
She also plays a song, “Reveille,” as part of her story, she said Wednesday as the final speaker of the Yakima Town Hall season. But because Nyad left her B flat Marine Corps bugle at home in Los Angeles and had to buy a cheap replacement, it wouldn’t have quite the same zip.
“This is the humorous part of the program,” she told the Capitol Theatre crowd before a slightly flat performance that earned enthusiastic applause.
“I used to play it for my team in Havana,” said Nyad, who is 68 and has the posture and demeanor of a cheerful drill sergeant. “The song means we’re up at dawn; we didn’t sleep in.”
While known to most for her successful 110.86-mile swim from Havana to Key West in 2013, Nyad began swimming as a child in Fort Lauderdale. She later won Florida state championships in the 100- and 200-yard backstroke.
“You know what I was drawn to? The commitment to the sport. I was a committed little swimmer,” said Nyad, who got up every day at 4:30 a.m. for swim practice and ended each day with 1,000 sit-ups.
When Nyad was 9, her mother stood with her on the beach and pointed in the direction of Cuba and its new leader, Fidel Castro.
“Our hometown was immersed in the mystique of that land right off our shores,” she said.
Nyad switched to distance swimming in college and in 1975 swam the 28 miles around Manhattan in less than eight hours. Three years later, when she was 28, Nyad first tried swimming from Havana to Key West, an effort ended by the weather.
After traveling the world as a sports journalist, Nyad tried again 33 years later in 2011 and a third time later that same year. It wasn’t until her fifth attempt, when she was 64, that she finally completed the swim.
“I never wanted to quit,” she said in the news conference before her presentation, noting previous attempts failed because of factors beyond her control. “I have never, in any swim … said I can’t do it.”
“It was never me who said I can’t do it. You should never ever give up.”
The challenges were daunting – the powerful Gulf Stream drags swimmers off course, jellyfish swarm (among them box jellyfish, whose venom is the most powerful in the world), easterly winds from western Africa pushing swimmers off course, sensory deprivation and hallucination.
“Whatever you’re doing in life, you fail, you fall down, you get back up,” she said.
Her 44-person team made the difference, Nyad said, recalling when she assembled members in a circle shortly before she walked onto the beach in Key West.
“Don’t you ever forget, my team, that we did this together,” she told them.
And while her accomplishment sounds like a sports story, it’s more a story of connecting two nations and of finding herself, said Nyad, who never let age or gender define her.
“It’s about dreaming big, refusing to give up,” of making every day worthwhile, she said.
These days her focus is EverWalk, an initiative she and Bonnie Stoll, her expedition leader of the Cuba swim, created to inspire a million people to get walking and turn America “from a screen culture full-time to a walk culture part-time,” Nyad said.
“We’re going to walk almost all the great corridors of America,” she said.
An upcoming walk will take participants from White Rock, British Columbia, Canada, to Seattle. It will take seven days of walking 20 miles a day. While that sounds like a lot (and it is), it’s something that all kinds of people can accomplish, she said.
“I think everybody has epic in them,” she said.
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