Ready to Swim 103 Miles With the Sharks
Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times
Published: July 18, 2011
KEY WEST, Fla. — Any day now, Diana Nyad will set out to do something no athlete has ever done: swim all day and all night, then all day and all night, then all day again.
“She is up against the most outlandish, outrageous, unbelievable physical endurance activity of, certainly, my lifetime,” said Steven Munatones, a champion open-water swimmer who runs the organization Open Water Source and will serve as an independent observer during Ms. Nyad’s swim. “I can’t imagine being in the ocean for 60 hours. I can’t imagine doing anything for 60 hours. It is inconceivable. It simply is.”
“Especially,” he added, “at her age.”
Her age is 61. Ms. Nyad attempted this swim once before, unsuccessfully, in 1978 at the age of 28. She swam inside a shark cage for 41 hours 49 minutes until the raucous weather and powerful current pushed her far off course and she was forced to give up. She had traveled only 50 miles. (One year later, she swam 102 miles from Bimini, in the Bahamas, to Jupiter, Fla., without a shark cage. She still holds the record for the world’s longest ocean swim.)
This time, armed with better technology and a battered but tough body, she is certain she will make it. “Physically, I am much stronger than I was before, although I was faster in my 20s,” said Ms. Nyad, who looks sturdy enough to defy a linebacker. “I feel strong, powerful, and endurance-wise, I’m fit.”
Dr. Michael J. Joyner, a professor of anesthesiology and exercise research at the Mayo Clinic, agrees that older athletes, particularly superb ones, do well in endurance sports, because experience and training can offset the need for speed.
At 52, Jeannie Longo still ranks as a top competitive cyclist. Gordie Howe played hockey into his 50s, and Jack LaLanne was 60 when he swam from Alcatraz Island to Fisherman’s Wharf, in San Francisco, for a second time, handcuffed, shackled and towing a 1,000-pound boat. Swimming is particularly technique-driven, which will help Ms. Nyad tremendously.
“There are a ton of examples of people in their late 50s and early 60s doing all sorts of wild things,” Dr. Joyner said. “If the logistics work out, barring bad storms or currents, it is doable. It’s not a sure thing. But it wouldn’t be a sure thing if it were Michael Phelps.”
If Ms. Nyad makes it from Cuba to Key West, she will be the first person to have done so without a shark cage. In 1997, an Australian woman completed the swim inside a shark cage. But with a boat pulling the cage, the swim is easier and faster; the woman completed it in less than 24 hours.
“I’m in uncharted territory,” Ms. Nyad said.
This time around, Ms. Nyad, an accomplished marathon swimmer and sportscaster, is taking no chances. She has trained harder — for a year and a half — and changed her regimen. Rather than swim every day, she swims every other day. Last year, she completed a 24-hour swim in Mexico.
To help her succeed, she has organized an armada of people — 22 in all — to serve as her support team. All of them will travel to Cuba, visas in hand, and will try to arrive within three days of her swim. (An effort last year was called off because of visa difficulties.)
“That’s the part that really interests me about Diana,” Mr. Munatones said. “It’s not just the swimming part. There are people who can swim this. But they don’t have the organizational, political and passionate oratorical skills she has.”
She also has technology on her side: satellites, global positioning systems, advanced navigation software, even shark shields, none of which were available in 1978. The cost for all this is $500,000. She has raised money and depleted her own bank account, but she is still $150,000 short. Ms. Nyad, a commentator for the Los Angeles-based public radio station KCRW, shrugs it off.
“If I wind up $150,000 in debt, I won’t lose sleep over it,” she said.
At the moment, four experts are looking seven days ahead to pinpoint the ideal weather for her to travel to Cuba and wade into the ocean: a satellite oceanographer and meteorologist trained in the vagaries of the Gulf Stream; another meteorologist who works for CNN; and two officials at NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They are all hoping for the beginning of a low-pressure system that could create the doldrums, a waveless sea, for a few days.