Nyad: More to life than racing in the Olympics

Record-breaker shares accomplishments, inspiration in Pillars talk

Posted: Thursday, May 08, 2003

When Diana Nyad was 16 and about to swim against seven other women for a chance to go to the 1968 Olympics, a fellow 16-year-old gave her the advice that has guided her every day of her life.

"She told me to look at the little sliver of fingernail on my pinky finger," Nyad told an audience of more than 500 people at a luncheon Wednesday, looking at her pinky and recalling the life-shaping moment.

The girl told Nyad to swim the race with every millimeter of her body, right up to the little sliver of fingernail.

" 'Make it so you couldn't have done it a fingernail faster,' " the girl told Nyad. And Nyad did. She swam the race with every bit of effort she could muster, but finished sixth - three places behind where she needed to be to go to the Olympics.

Instead of lamenting the 10 years of effort she put in to getting to the Olympics, Nyad congratulated the winners and kept her spirits up. She realized that when a person does anything with every bit of their effort, winning or losing doesn't matter, she said.

Shortly after she ended her Olympic pursuit, Nyad discovered marathon swimming - a sport that has athletes traveling around the world to compete in super-long-distance swims.

"I thought, 'that appeals to me,' " Nyad said. "There's something masochistic about it, really."

She spent the next 10 years of her life swimming incredible distances, setting the record for the fastest swim around Manhattan Island in 1975 with a time of 7 hours, 57 minutes.

In 1978, Nyad set out to break the world record for the longest continuous swim.

"It was really an egomaniacal sort of thing," she said.

She set off from Cuba headed for Florida, but it was not to be. Eight-foot seas made her and many members of her support team sick and rendered navigation nearly impossible.

"I heard that every atheist on board (the support ship) converted to something," Nyad said.

Forty-one hours and 49 minutes after she set off, weighing 29 pounds less than when she set off, Nyad was pulled aboard a Coast Guard ship and taken to shore.

The next year, Nyad was back on the water, setting out to cover the 102.5 miles separating the coast of Bimini, in the Bahamas, and Florida.

"It was the same area, same distance, same sharks," Nyad said.

This time, the weather cooperated. After more than two days of nonstop swimming, she crawled onto the Florida shore.

Her first thought was that she had been marathon swimming for 10 years and she couldn't have done it "one fingernail better," she said. So she decided to move on to the next segment of her life: journalism.

She embarked on a lustrous print, television and radio journalism career, then joined the lecture circuit, which led the Glacier Valley Rotary Club to bring her to Juneau for its 12th annual Pillars of America Freedom Series.

Despite her extensive travels, Nyad was impressed with Juneau.

"Yesterday I stood on the Herbert Glacier and my heart pounded," she said. "... I believe I was standing on the most beautiful place on earth."

Juneau residents who listened to Nyad's speech were just as impressed with her.

"I thought she was wonderful," said audience member Sari Monagle. "Her persistence, her ability to talk."

Kendra Buerger, 12, a sixth-grader at Dzantik'i Heeni, said Nyad was inspiring.

"She inspired me to believe in myself and keep going, even when I think I can't go any further," Buerger said.

Local businesses donated funds to allow 150 students attend the luncheon for free. The Glacier Swim Club bought another 20 tickets for its team members.

Christine Schmid can be reached at cschmid@juneauempire.com.

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