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SHE TAKES A LONG SWIM OFF A SHORT PIER
Dan Levin
December 06, 1971
Marathon swimming may not be the most painless way to gain renown but, as Diana Nyad found, it beats parachuting from the fourth floor
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December 06, 1971

She Takes A Long Swim Off A Short Pier

Marathon swimming may not be the most painless way to gain renown but, as Diana Nyad found, it beats parachuting from the fourth floor

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What is in a name? A parental whim and, world, say hello to little Grace. But what if Grace grows up clumsy? Does Brooks Robinson sound like a third baseman or a haberdasher? Maybe Hollywood has the right idea. Roy Fitzgerald looks like Rock Hudson, and Judy Garland transported us Over the Rainbow, not Frances Gumm. What, for example, would they call a pretty distance swimmer, 22, with honey-colored skin and built like a Greek goddess? Diana? Diana what, though? Synchronized swimming teams have borne the name Naiads. It has a nice ring, but what does it mean? Webster says a naiad is one "of the nymphs in ancient mythology, living in and giving life to lakes, rivers, springs and fountains." Tough to spell, though. Nyad is easier. Yes, Diana Nyad. Not bad for the best woman distance swimmer in the world.

Two summers ago, while a counselor at Ontario's Camp Ak-O-Mak, Diana Nyad's specialty was tennis. Not so apt. But there was nothing wrong with her swimming; at 16, in fact, she had finished 12th in the 100-yard backstroke at the indoor nationals. She had never raced in open water, though, or farther than 1,500 meters, and as of July 25, 1970 she had never seen a marathon swim. Talk about breaking in overnight: on the morning of July 26, on a Lake Ontario beach at Hamilton, she stood in the midst of the world's best marathoners, 17 men and three other women. The Labatt's International Ten-Mile Marathon Swim was about to begin, and Diana Nyad was entered. "Just to see what would happen," she recalls. "The gun went off and we were still on the beach. We had to run down and dive in. I don't know why. It wasn't a track event, but I had to battle my way to the water. I wanted to swim, not wrestle." Which showed how little she knew about marathon swimming.

She learned fast. Two Egyptians swam annoyingly close, taking advantage of her wake. One was Abdul Latif Abou-Heif, The Crocodile of the Nile, and he and his countryman tagged along for a few miles before she shook them. Diana eventually came in 10th and set a woman's world record for 10 miles—4:23:00. She also won $400 as the first woman finisher. Back at Ak-O-Mak the campers raided the player piano to letter its 90-foot scroll with TODAY HAMILTON, TOMORROW THE ENGLISH CHANNEL, but tomorrow was Aug. 29, only 570 miles away at Chicoutimi, Quebec.

It is important to understand a basic fact of marathon swimming: it is somewhat more taxing than, say, croquet, or marathon running, or staying up all night with the baby. At Hamilton the course is a buoyed half-mile; 20 quick laps, a little moaning on the beach, an hour or so in the hospital and a day or two later you are as good as new. Chicoutimi, though...aaaaagh! That is the sound the winners make. The losers.... On second thought, even the winners at Chicoutimi are losers. (Which, in a perverse way, if suffering is a virtue, as it often seems to be with marathon swimmers, also makes the losers winners.) About 28 miles all told, the course begins at Chicoutimi, heads down the Saguenay River for 18 miles, then parallels two or three miles of tidal, rocky shore that each year leaves a few swimmers looking as if they had been keelhauled. It is either that or the rips, a meeting of currents off the rocks that at certain tides looks like one of those miniature basins they put toy ships in when they want to film a real storm at sea.

Those who make it by either the rocks or the rips enter a big bay—which, for no reason that leaps to mind, is called Ha! Ha! Bay—with more unpredictable tides. Seven miles up the bay is Bagotville—the finish. In 1969 the 22 best marathoners in the world started the race. None finished. Chicoutimi did not seem the right place for a pretty young girl who had never swum more than 10 miles. Diana Nyad would need a good boat, and plenty of Coke, hot chocolate and aspirin.

It didn't work out that way. In fact, nearly all the boats got lost in a storm the night before the race, including the one assigned to Diana. Replacements were reportedly on the way, but they would not arrive until hours after the start, and on the pier a friend was consoling Diana, when suddenly she was swimming. "The gun went off," she said later, "and I wasn't going to just stand there."

A few miles out she nearly swam ashore. There was no boat to guide her, and she had this thing about goggles; she wouldn't wear them, despite a popular theory that it is always good for a swimmer to know where she is going. (Her trainer, Buck Dawson, says: "I've never known Diana Nyad to back down, to admit she was wrong about anything, even when she was.") Four and a quarter hours into the race, 14 miles downriver, Dawson caught up in a boat. It had been a long time to go without nourishment. "You're in second place," he yelled, and handed out hot chocolate and aspirin. Argentina's Horacio Iglesias, the world's best marathoner, was in first; Diana was two miles ahead of the third-place swimmer.

She and Dawson chose to avoid the rocks and enter the rips. It was a mistake. Six miles from the finish she swam for an hour on a tidal treadmill, getting nowhere. The tide would not change for hours, and if she started resting—treading water—she would have been swept toward the Atlantic Ocean. Other swimmers began catching up, saw her plight, took the rocky route and rode a current that swept them safely into the bay. After nine hours Diana had to be hauled, protesting, into her boat. Iglesias had not done much better. At 27 miles he too had been dragged from the water and rushed to a hospital, unconscious. He was fed intravenously for three hours. For the second straight year, there had been 22 starters. This time three of them finished.

Many times since that summer, Diana Nyad has said this: "I haven't come close to my potential in marathon swimming yet, but I'd trade all of what I'm going to be for an Olympic gold medal. I just wasn't fast enough, though." It seems a strange admission, but it is honest, devoid of regret. Certainly she had given all there was to give and more: the best days of some very good years; dates, parties, proms, all forsaken for a dream that would never come true; training from 5:30 to 7:30 every morning, 3:00 to 5:00 every afternoon, and sometimes a few more hours after dark. For four straight years she was captain of Fort Lauderdale's Pine Crest School swimming team. "It was eat, sleep and swim then," she recalls, and even now, after 14 years in the business, Jack Nelson, her Pine Crest coach, stands in awe of her. "Here was a beautiful girl, pursued by every boy who thought he had a chance, but if it interfered with practice—forget it. She worked harder than anyone I've ever had. Getting ready for the nationals I'd catch her retching in the gutter and I'd figure that's it for today, but she'd be right back for more."

In 1958 Nelson was an All-America swimmer at the University of Miami. If ever a man was born to a sport he was, but the sport was football. He had been a semipro fullback at 5'4" and 178 pounds, but somehow he turned to swimming; that drew a lot of laughs, even at the 1956 Olympics. "The wrestling dorms are over there," they told him, but he finished fourth in the 200-meter butterfly, and a year later won the national 220-yard, short-course championship in the same stroke. He knew a thing or two about mind over matter and dedication, and Diana Nyad met him at an impressionable time. She was a seventh-grader, 12 years old, a crucial age for most young girls, but especially for this one, born Diana Sneed. "Mr. Sneed," she calls her father, a man she never knew. Her parents were divorced when she was three, and soon afterward her mother married a wealthy Greek land developer named Aristotle Zason Nyad, but that marriage ended, too, about the time Jack Nelson came along.

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