"Coach Nelson became sort of a father figure to me," Diana says. "I respected him more than anyone I've ever known." "If you put your guts into something," he used to tell her, "you'll get it." And how she tried. In ninth grade, at a Florida senior regional championship, she finished second in the 200-meter backstroke, two-tenths of a second behind the winner. Even now it is the race she is most proud of. "It was a gut swim," she says. In the next three years she won the 100-yard backstroke at six state meets, but she never surpassed her 12th-place finish in the nationals.
That spring she swam at a meet in Palm Beach, stayed up late and caught a cold. Next morning, though, there she was at the pool. "I felt guilty if I laid off a day," she says. After practice she began running a fever. It went away and she kept working out, but later that week she got chest pains. She began swimming in the outside lanes so she could hold onto the gutter when the pain intensified. She was getting ready for next year's nationals, so she did not tell anyone about the pain. Finally, Nelson caught her doubled up, clutching the gutter, and he took her out. She was given an EKG, and the diagnosis was endocarditis, a virus infection of the heart. "I'm only 16," she sobbed. "How can I have heart disease?" But that is what it was, and the prescription was a summer of bed rest, with no visitors.
By fall her heart looked normal. It was her senior year at Pine Crest, and the doctor said she could swim a little—three short workouts a week. Ha! She was out every day, but slower now, much slower. She was not going to get to Mexico City, and, though Nelson cheered her on, privately he grieved. "It's not her fault she wasn't the best amateur swimmer in the world," he says. "She'd swim till she couldn't lift her arms from the water."
He would tell his friends: " Diana Nyad is going to be great at something. She already is as a human being." Clearly this was no ordinary coach-athlete relationship. For the young girl, Nelson was what Sociologist George Herbert Mead has termed "a significant other," probably the most significant. The mutual admiration surfaced in many and curious ways, most of the latter from Diana. Once she led the Pine Crest swimming team in an all-night assault on Nelson's 12' x 14' office. When he arrived the next morning the office was stuffed so full of wadded newspaper, wall to wall and ceiling to floor, that he couldn't open the door.
Another time, to celebrate the start of the Pine Crest swimming season, she did a little unannounced housecleaning. This time Nelson's door opened easily, but everything was gone—books, desk, pictures on the wall, shelves, wastebasket. Nelson could understand this; his coaching friends had always considered him the clown of their profession, and once, he admits, he was kind of a wild guy. He and his wife Margie are happily married, with three little girls now, but he had to "grow into marriage," he says. For a spell he was a frequent guest at the Nyads' Fort Lauderdale home. That seems hard to visualize: the slightly eccentric, high-strung, not-too-domestic Nelson in the immaculate home of Diana's mother Lucy—a tall, gracious, almost stately woman, with a sort of vaguely society manner. There were no problems though. Mrs. Nyad approved of Nelson's influence on her daughter; he could find no fault with the woman who had raised her.
Diana Nyad graduated from Pine Crest in June of 1967, a cryptic "Great Marks Are Soonest Hit" beside her yearbook picture, and went off to Emory University in Atlanta. Emory has been called the Harvard of the South. Diana enrolled as a premed student; she wanted to be a surgeon. She also wanted to keep on swimming. She worked out daily at a nearby YMCA, but studies had to come first. Her freshman courses were physics, chemistry and math, and her first-semester grades were high enough to qualify her to view surgery at the university hospital. Diana seemed well prepared for Emory. Unfortunately, Emory was not well prepared for her.
Sometimes, after an evening of study, she would put on her green sweat suit and go out for a few laps around the track. At 1 a.m. That did not set well with some people. And in the mornings she had early labs, right after her YMCA workouts, which meant she arrived with wet hair, in winter—Diana and 100 men. A woman dean told her that the only reason anyone would do that was to attract attention. Other people began to have similar ideas, some of them understandable.
The big stunt at Emory in those years was to paint the stone lion in front of the SAE house. Painters caught in the act were supposedly scalped; that was a challenge Diana Nyad could not pass up. Twice she led a group of friends on late-night raids to SAE, where they spent hours sticking thousands of toothpicks deep into the lawn, close together, like nails in a fakir's bed. Then they would yell, "Lion painters!" and out would rush the brothers in their pajamas. Barefoot. Still, that seemed pretty tame the second time around. During her sophomore year, she and some friends put up posters all over campus, announcing a parachute jump in the courtyard between the women's dorms. Diana went to an Army-Navy store, bought a parachute, boots and a jump suit. There were sliding glass windows in Diana's dorm, and she went up to the fourth floor at the announced hour and took out the screens. Quite a few people had gathered below.
She recalls the moment: "The parachute wasn't even folded right, and anyway it was obvious it wouldn't open in only four stories. People all around were looking out the windows, and many of the deans were there, including the ones who'd thought me kind of bizarre before. My friends were fluffing up the parachute to get air pockets in it, and I was scared to death, but I jumped.
"Surprisingly, I only bruised my heel bones. Nothing happened right away, but in a few days I got a note asking me to see the dean of women. She asked me if I wanted to kill myself, though not as bluntly as that. Evidently she thought it was very serious."