At 64, Diana Nyad made swimming history. Now a critically acclaimed film tells her story.

By Susan Burns

In October, on the 10th anniversary of her historic 110-mile nonstop swim from Cuba to Key West, Diana Nyad was once again on Smathers Beach in Key West, this time releasing a rehabilitated sea turtle named Rocky. At 74, she looks youthful, strong and energetic, far better than she did 10 years ago when she stumbled ashore on this beach, sunburned and with a swollen face and lips. Bonnie Stoll, her best friend and longtime coach, was with her to celebrate the anniversary, as were 30 of the other crew members on the swim and several hundred fans.

Nyad doesn’t swim much anymore. Her shoulder gives her trouble, and she’s also taken up another sport—tennis. True to form, she’s become obsessed and a good player, says Stoll, who lives only three miles from Nyad in Los Angeles. On a Zoom call, I tell Nyad I heard she’s good at tennis. She rolls her eyes and replies, “I wouldn’t put that in [the story]. We know Martina Navratilova.”

She may not be a tennis champion—yet—but Nyad is an elite athlete in the obscure sport of long-distance swimming. She’s also an author of four books, a former sports journalist and an international inspirational speaker with a string of TED Talks and TV appearances, where she urges listeners that it’s never too late to pursue their goals. She should know. In 2009 at age 60, she came out of a 30-year swimming retirement to attempt what seemed an impossible dream—to be the first swimmer to cross the treacherous Florida Straits outside of a shark cage.

Her personality fit the challenge. She’s indomitable, tireless, talkative, outgoing, driven, confident, charismatic, overbearing, self-promotional—and yet she carries a deep reservoir of vulnerability. Nyad admits in her memoir, Find a Way, that in her youth she had “a desperate need to convince people that I was special.” Just one example: She once parachuted from a fourth-story dorm room for attention.

But it was her drive to tackle what seemed a superhuman feat—especially by a woman in her 60s—that drew Oscar-winning documentary filmmakers Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi to her story. Called simply “Nyad,” and starring Annette Bening as Nyad and Jodie Foster as Stoll, the 2023 drama chronicles Nyad’s five attempts to make the crossing from Cuba to Florida. The movie has received excellent reviews, and Bening and Foster were nominated for Oscars for best actress and best supporting actress.

Stoll, who once had a romantic relationship with Nyad, says she’s never met anyone like her. “She will not give up on anything,” says Stoll, who was a top-ranked U.S. racquetball player. “She’s the least lazy person I’ve ever met.”

Another close friend and former girlfriend, Candace Hogan, a sports journalist who met Nyad when they were in their 20s, recalls that Nyad started every day with a workout and strung new vocabulary words to learn on a clothesline. She was once in an elevator with Nyad when a man walked in smoking a cigar. This was in the 1970s, when most women did not confront men in public. Nyad asked the man twice, politely, if he would put out his cigar. He refused.

“She took it out of his mouth and stomped it out on the ground,” Hogan recalls. “He was stunned.”

Both friends say traveling with Nyad can be exhausting and amusing. “When we get on an airplane, I say, ‘Diana, I do not need to meet the person next to you,’ ” Stoll says. “She’ll fall asleep for the first five minutes and then wake up and meet the whole plane.”

But they say it is Nyad’s indomitable will that stands out. “You get tired and you think you can’t go for a minute longer and you look over the side of the boat and there she is swimming [in] unpredictable weather, squalls, thunder, lightning, waves. She keeps going and you think, ‘OK, maybe I have more, too,’” says Hogan.

Nyad says she’s always been driven. “My mother would have said I was like that when I was a year-and-a-half old. It’s a nature thing, not a nurture thing,” she says. She tells a story about her graduation from elementary school when she was 11. Nyad was sitting next to her mother when the principal came up and said the boy who was supposed to give a speech was throwing up in the bathroom.

“Will you do it?” he asked Nyad.

“My mother said, ‘Don’t you dare, you didn’t prepare for it.’”

Undaunted, Nyad got up and told the roomful of children and their parents, “We’re 11. If you look at the math, most of us have about 70 more years. We’d better get busy. We’ve got to chase big dreams.”

Nyad, with her coach Bonnie Stoll (at left) and friend Candace Hogan, on the beach in Key West after completing her 2013 swim.

Nyad was born in New York City in 1949. Her parents divorced when she was 3. After moving to Palm Beach, her mother, Lucy Curtis, married Aristotle Z. Nyad, a dashing, good-looking man she met on the beach. He turned out to be a con artist, criminal and “superlative at lying and stealing,” Nyad writes in her memoir. Aris Nyad adopted Diana and moved the family to Fort Lauderdale.

Nyad often mentions two watershed moments that charted her swimming career. The first, when she was 5, happened when her father pointed to the word “naiad” in the dictionary—in Greek mythology, naiads were nymphs who protect the waters for the gods. “It means champion swimmer,” he told her—“your destiny.”  The other event occurred when she was standing with her mother on a beach in Fort Lauderdale at the age of 9, during the Cuban Revolution. “[Cuba] is so close, you could almost swim there,” her mother told Nyad.

Nyad took her father’s prophecy to heart. By the age of 10, she was waking up at 4:30 a.m. to work out and swim. But while her father helped to chart her course, he also beat Diana, her mother and her siblings. He also touched her “inappropriately” and “acted out his sexual deviances with me,” Nyad writes in her memoir, and her mother did nothing to stop him. She writes that she was elated when her parents divorced when she was 14 and Aris Nyad left.

Swimming had become a refuge from a not-so-stable home, and Nyad became the best backstroker in Florida in her age group. But a dark side surfaced. Nyad has spoken and written about being molested all through high school by her swim coach, the late Olympic coach Jack Nelson. Although he denied this allegation, another swimmer on Nyad’s team also came forward to say she was molested by Nelson. He was fired from the high school, but the reason wasn’t made public; and he landed a job at a university, where he was once again accused of sexual abuse. His behavior was an open secret in the swimming world, Nyad writes, but nevertheless, he became the 1976 U.S. Olympic women’s team coach.

In recent years, young athletes have exposed similar acts of sexual abuse, and they have been validated and the perpetrators prosecuted. But in the ’60s, these stories were rarely told in public. Nyad felt isolated, powerless and ashamed.

Nyad told me the only regret she has about her life is staying silent when the abuse occurred. “I wish I had taken that guy and thrown him up against a wall, punched him in the gut, spat in his face and gone to my mother, gone to the principal and gone to the police,” she said. “I am frustrated that I was silenced and allowed myself to be silenced. These things don’t go away. You don’t just say, ‘Oh, I’m over that.’”

She has said that only when she did speak out could she start to heal, and she believes her public candor has energized others to speak out as well. But the harrowing memories still haunt her. “I’m pretty confident. I’m pretty happy. I’m pretty together at age 74, but sexual abuse still lingers no matter how much love I get or how much therapy I’ve done,” she says. She plans to start a platform called Safe Harbor, where survivors of sexual abuse can safely tell their stories.

As a high school swimmer, Nyad aimed to make the Olympics, but she came to realize that she did not have the physical makeup to be a top-tier sprint pool swimmer.

She floundered during her first year at college, no longer a swimmer and yet to understand she was gay, but eventually found her footing as a student. She came to New York City in 1973, planning to get her Ph.D. in comparative literature at New York University. Then a friend told her about long-distance swimming. The sport fit her stroke and stamina, and she began to train in open water and compete around the world.

In 1975 at the age of 26, she completed the 28-mile swim around Manhattan in 7 hours and 57 minutes, a record time for women and men. She became an instant celebrity, appearing on “Saturday Night Live” and hanging out with Jackie Onassis, Andy Warhol and Woody Allen. It was the era of Billie Jean King—who also celebrated her—and Nyad was part of the hope, hype and history of women champions who were finally being recognized.

On Aug. 13, 1978, Nyad, 28, made her first attempt to swim from Havana, Cuba, to Key West. Enclosed in a shark cage, she swam for almost 42 hours and 76 miles, but high seas battered her against the cage and knocked her off course until she gave up. She wasn’t the first to try. Only a month earlier, on July 11, 1978, 65-year-old Walter Poenisch had succeeded by using a shark cage and fins and taking short rests. (In 1997, 22-year-old Australian long-distance swimmer Susie Maroney made the same swim using only a shark cage.) Nyad made another long-distance swim in 1979, when she turned 30, and set a distance record for swimming from Bimini in the Bahamas to Florida without a wetsuit.

But she decided to hang up her goggles and became a sports journalist for “Wide World of Sports.” She traveled the world, covering the Olympics, major sports and athletes. Thirty years went by. Then her mother died at the age of 82, and Nyad, who turned 60 in 2009, saw the runway of her life getting shorter. The Cuba dream returned.

But this time, and true to her need to make a splash, Nyad wanted to be the first person to swim the distance without a shark cage. She assembled an extraordinary team—shark divers, kayakers, a jellyfish expert, navigators, captains, medical personnel, independent observers and, of course, Stoll and Hogan. All volunteers, they agreed to come whenever the weather looked favorable. On that last swim, 40 people accompanied her.

Swimming the Florida Straits is “the Mount Everest” of open-water swimming, Nyad says. The swim has to take place in summer when the water is warm enough to prevent hypothermia—but also warm enough to stir up violent tropical storms. The Gulf Stream current and winds must cooperate, and the navigator and captain need to avoid getting lost in eddies. Then there are sharks and even more dangerous, box jellyfish, which have excruciatingly painful stings and venom that can cause cardiac arrest.

Nyad made three failed attempts to swim from Cuba to Key West after she turned 60: August 2011, September 2011 and August 2012. Injury ended her first attempt in 2011. Six weeks later, on her next attempt, box jellyfish almost killed her. The next summer, box jellyfish expert Angel Yanagihara joined her team and Nyad had a special stinger suit made for her. Yanagihara also had developed a chemical gel to subdue pain from any stings. Strong currents, a box jellyfish sting (all it took was a small gap in her suit but the gel prevented Nyad from going into shock) and storms again stopped the swim.

Members of her team began to drop out, but to Nyad, the swim had become about never giving up. On Aug. 31, 2013, with a better stinger suit, silicone mask and mouth guard, Nyad dove into the water off Havana and swam nonstop for 52 hours and 54 minutes, then waded ashore onto Smathers Beach. After years of training and thousands of hours in the water, four tries and four failures, Nyad had achieved her Cuba dream. Dripping wet and slurring her words, she told the 2,000 onlookers she had three messages: “One is we should never ever give up. Two is you are never too old to chase your dreams. And three is, it looks like a solitary sport, but it takes a team.”

"She keeps going and you think, 'OK, maybe I have more too," Hogan, at right,says of Nyad.

In the movie, Nyad is portrayed by Bening as ferocious and single-minded to the point of appalling selfishness. Is that accurate? In real life, Nyad jokes,  “I might be a tad friendlier…I might have a sense of humor….maybe I have some charisma.” She says she tried convincing the filmmakers that 40 volunteers would not accompany her if they didn’t trust and like her.

But, she concedes, “You needed the drama of the person who wouldn’t let go.”  And she believes the movie inspires people to dream big and make those dreams come true.

The movie has brought out detractors, almost all of them in the marathon swimming community. The World Open Water Swimming Association (WOWSA) has done exhaustive—some say obsessive—research about her Cuba-to-Key West swim and claims that her swim lacked the proper documentation and perhaps others touched or helped her during the swim. They refused to record the swim as successful, which caused the Guinness World Records to remove it from its database. The Marathon Swimmers Association, however, found no evidence of cheating.

Some of these doubts were sown decades ago. Nyad exaggerated some of her swims in her youth, something she’s said she cringes at now. But there was no cheating, she insists. That 40 people, many of them respected professionals, would put their reputations on the line to lie and continue to lie for 10 years defies logic. WOWSA did not ratify swims like hers in 2013, she says. “They were not in that business,” she says, and now they want to apply rules that didn’t exist.

“Maybe there’s some jealousy,” she says. “This is a tough sport. There are dozens of extremely talented and courageous swimmers, and nobody’s ever heard of their names. They could be pretty darned annoyed that Diana Nyad comes along and the whole world thinks she’s just great. But honestly, I just can’t care anymore. You can’t take it away from us.”

The facts remain. In her 60s, Nyad assembled a small army of expert volunteers, coordinated travel, trained to exhaustion, enlisted sponsors and made four grueling efforts across 100 miles of open water in her quest to achieve something no other human had ever done.

Film creator Vasarhelyi told the LA Times the film was never about Nyad breaking a record. “Our film is not about how many times someone was touched,” he said. “It’s about how a woman woke up at 60 and realized she wasn’t finished, even though the world may be finished with her.”

Ten years after her swim, Nyad continues to travel the world giving speeches. A gifted storyteller, she comes alive in the spotlight. She’s also writing a children’s book and studying Spanish with a tutor, which will make her fluent in four languages. She plays tennis—“twice a day, every day,” says Stoll. She and Stoll also founded a nonprofit, called EverWalk, to inspire people to get off their couches and away from their screens. The organization schedules 20-mile walks throughout the year in Canada and the United States.

And on March 10, she will find out if the film that bears her name and tells her story brings home Oscar gold.

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Susan Burns spent 34 years as a writer and editor for SagaCity Media (formerly Gulfshore Media) in Sarasota, where she was founding editor of a regional business magazine and editor-in-chief of Sarasota Magazine before retiring in 2022. She has won state and national awards for her profiles and coverage of community issues.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2024 Issue of FORUM Magazine. Visit our collection at the USFSP Digital Archive by clicking here.